‘After a Journey’ is a lament at the loss of Thomas Hardy’s wife, reflecting in both its structure and tone, Hardy’s feelings of sadness and regret. The language used in the opening stanza immediately conjures imagery relating to loss and despair. ‘Up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely lost’ line 3, is a direct reference to Hardy’s state of mind. His feelings of loss and a searching for answers are powerfully highlighted both in the idea of the ‘unseen waters’ line 4 and of being ‘lonely lost’ line 3. Hardy compounds the feelings of grief by making it clear the places he is currently in only serve to heighten his feelings of loss whilst his references to ‘haunts’ line 9 and ‘haunted’ line 19, only reinforce the notion of a man grieving for and being haunted by, the memories of his dead wife.
However, though there is undoubtedly a proliferation of bleak and despondent imagery used in the opening half of the poem, Hardy uses more positive language in the descriptions of his wife, ‘With your nut-coloured hair’ line 7 and ‘When you were all aglow’ line 24. The beautification of his lost love, in the context of the poem, hints at the devotion he felt for his companion and serves to reinforce the idea of a man suffering the effects of extreme loss. It is also interesting that it reflects a more general statement as to the nature of grief, that human nature almost always forces those left behind, to focus on the positive aspects of those they have lost . It is telling that whilst Hardy alludes to the fact that their relationship was sometimes strained, ‘Things were not lastly as firstly well’ line 15, the idea that he still imagines his wife in her most perfect state, says as much for the human spirit at times of grief as it does for Hardy himself.
The structure of the poem itself reflects the phases of the grieving process. The dark imagery of the opening paragraph is part of a greater whole. Each stanza that follows reflects a different aspect of Hardy’s grief and partial healing. The second stanzas, ‘Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division’ line 14 and ‘But all’s closed now’ line 17, gives the impression of Hardy feeling reflective, but at the same time despondent, as the language used is one of regret and sadness. The thirds stanzas more upbeat tone is reflected in the use of more positive language and imagery, ‘Above the mist-bone shone’ line 20 and ‘When you were all aglow’ line 24.
This again, highlights another stage of grief and allows the reader to not only understand Hardy’s state of mind but also generates a more positive feel to the poem. It is this structure which is perhaps the most understated aspect of Hardy’s work. It cleverly envelopes the reader, taking them on a journey, from the bleak opening section to the progressively more positive ending. This clever structuring is highlighted perfectly in the contrast between the opening and closing verses. The final stanza subtly hints at a notion of closure and acceptance at the loss of his wife. ‘Trust me, I mind not’ line 30 and ‘bring me here again’ line 31, perfectly illustrate the idea that Hardy, whilst not yet completely past the process of grieving, is far more able to dwell on the memories of his wife and their life together.
Though the structure of the poem reflects the grieving process, there are other, more subtle, reflections of Hardy’s mood and state of mind. The random punctuation prevalent throughout reinforces the idea of Hardy’s psyche racing through memories and emotions. The use of semi colons in lines 1, 9 and 10 and exclamation marks in lines 25 and 31, force a stop start rhythm on the reader, giving the poem a rhythmic flow of quick pace and jarring stops.
It allows Hardy to cleverly toy with the speed and rhythm of the passages, reinforcing the notion of a desperate searching for answers and of thoughtful controlled reflection. The use of questions only serves to heighten a feeling of a man lost and alone, searching for meaning, ‘will its whim now draw me?’ line 2 and ‘wherein I have lacked you?’ line 13. It is interesting to note, however, that though these questions are aimed squarely at Hardy’s dead wife, they have the secondary effect of drawing the reader into the text and in doing so personalises the entire poem.
Hardy is also clever in using the notions of past and present to further reinforce the ebb and flow of the poem. The reference to the past, ‘you are leading me on to the spots we knew’ line 18 & 19 and to the present, ‘the dawn whitens hazily’ line 29 gives the poem a tidal like quality that seems to carry the reader on a journey back and forth through Hardy’s mind. The reference to the seasons, ‘Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?’ line 14 only serves to underscore the feeling that the reader is being transported back and forth from memory to memory, past and present, whilst line 8, ‘coming and going’, almost single-handedly defines the underlying nature of the poem.
The rhyme prevalent throughout the piece further heightens the notion of a man desperately trying to make sense of his feelings and memories, particularly in the opening two stanzas, ‘a voiceless ghost’ line 1 and ‘I’m lonely lost’ line 3. The rhyme is ever so slightly erratic, which undoubtedly reflects Hardy’s mood and state of mind at that point, however, as the poem continues and Hardy begins to show signs of coming to terms with his loss, the imagery in the rhyme is softer and less bleak. ‘seals flop lazily’ line 27 and ‘the dawn whitens hazily’ line 29 generate almost dreamlike images in the mind of the reader and create an ambiance of calm and reconcilement. It is also important to realise that by using a strong rhyme set throughout, Hardy gives the poem an almost melodic quality, which in turn makes the piece highly memorable and extremely poignant.
Throughout the poem there are numerous references to nature, which, for the most part, simply serve to reinforce the changes Hardy’s mood, ‘Up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely lost’ line 3 and ‘At the then fair hour in the then fair weather’ line 21. There is, however, a subtle change in the use of the references to nature in the third and fourth stanzas. ‘The waked birds preen and the seals flop lazily’ line 27 not only describes the scene that Hardy finds himself in, but also hints at a realisation that whilst he is, understandably, dwelling on the past, nature is simply continuing its normal timeline.
This is notable, not only for the dream like imagery that it conjures in the reader, but also because Hardy is perhaps using it to comment on himself, that he too must continue to live his life and that as nature ultimately continues to live so can he. The use of metaphor and simile in lines 29, ‘For the stars close their shutters’ and 22, ‘And the cave just under, with a voice still so hollow’, only serve to reinforce the link between Hardy’s humanity and nature itself.
‘After a journey’, cleverly works on more than one level. Whilst it is undoubtedly Hardy’s personal eulogy to his wife and in turn is possibly a form of therapy, a way of reconciling his feelings of loss and guilt, it also so much more. At times it seems to be an overview of the grieving process itself, a blueprint, if you will, of the stages of grieving and subsequent healing that most people go through when faced with loss. It is this which is perhaps its most powerful legacy, that those who have experienced loss can gain some comfort from his work and ultimately, like Hardy himself, begin the healing process for themselves.