Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a Victorian writer whose literary output includes novels, short stories, eight volumes of poetry and non-fictional prose. Though popularly known as a novelist, Hardy’s first love was poetry. After the negative reception of his final novels he returned to poetry as his primary form of writing.
Hardy had no formal University education but a deep thirst for knowledge, which was encouraged from childhood by his mother, Jemima Hardy. Hardy’s belief in the eternal power of love for the environment is reflected in many of his poems, a thought that Hardy perhaps shared with several late-Victorian writers. ‘Afterwards’ is one of the most famous of those poems, which emphasize minute observation of the natural world. It was part of a volume entitled Moments of Vision, published in 1917.
‘Afterwards’ is dotted with animals, birds and even insects. Hardy’s keen observation of insect-life connects him with the general late-Victorian enthusiasm for entomology. Similarly, in a scene in Hardy’s 1874 novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, the activities and movements of insects are read by Gabriel Oak, the hero who manifests some of Hardy’s own naturalist sensibilities, as the premonition of a huge storm.
The poem hinges upon the speaker-poet’s careful observation of natural phenomena and expression of them in images of beauty, contrasted with the prosaic and factual observations made by those around him after his departure. The poem is structured around imagined occasions after the speaker’s death. Rather than as an internationally celebrated writer, he hopes to be remembered as an attentive country-dweller, whose life synchronised with the rolling out of seasons and the changing nuances of every day. The interplay of day and night, the calendar months and seasons, all of which converge in the imaginary retrospective of the speaker-poet’s departure from this cycle, make the poem a strange amalgam of self-consciousness. Descriptions of time blur with natural details: “May month’s” wings flap, for example, and the “dewfall-hawk’s” silent movements become like a “soundless blink”. There is a sadness here too, perhaps arising out of the poet’s regret of leaving behind the subtle and vibrant sounds of the non-human world: the harsh reality that the cycle of life and nature shall go on uninterrupted even as the speaker-poet’s life of observation ends.
The heightened ecological consciousness of our present time could find much to delve into in the Victorian age, and Hardy remains one of the forerunners in this cultural development through his close involvement with the Humanitarian League (formed 1891), and the Animal’s Friend Society (1832). Hardy’s attentions to animal life have been used to advocate for animal protection both during and after his lifetime. The vulnerable hedgehog in this poem prompts a reference to this political advocacy work. Yet Hardy was aware of the limits of his efforts in protecting animal lives, and in his later poem ‘Compassion’ (1924), which was written for the Celebration of the Centenary of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, encourages future work.