After a Journey
Hereto I come to view a voiceless ghost;
Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?
Up the cliff, down, till I'm lonely, lost,
And the unseen waters' ejaculations awe me.
Where you will next be there's no knowing,
Facing round about me everywhere,
With your nut-coloured hair,
And gray eyes, and rose-flush coming and going.
Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;
What have you now found to say of our past -
Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?
Things were not lastly as firstly well
With us twain, you tell?
But all's closed now, despite Time's derision.
I see what you are doing: you are leading me on
To the spots we knew when we haunted here together,
The waterfall, above which the mist-bow shone
At the then fair hour in the then fair weather,
And the cave just under, with a voice still so hollow
That it seems to call out to me from forty years ago,
When you were all aglow,
And not the thin ghost that I now frailly follow!
Ignorant of what there is flitting here to see,
The waked birds preen and the seals flop lazily,
Soon you will have, Dear, to vanish from me,
For the stars close their shutters and the dawn whitens hazily.
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours,
The bringing me here; nay, bring me here again!
I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.
Commentary by A. Banerjee, Emeritus Professor of English and American Literature, Kobe College, Japan
This poem is based on a personal incident: in the March after his first wife’s death in November 1912, the poet revisited the places where they first met and fell in love over forty years earlier. As in other such poems, Hardy goes back to the past and recalls buried emotions which, when filtered through his present poetic consciousness, acquire a certain timeless quality. By showing the interpenetration of the past and the present, he suggests that any attempt to see one to the exclusion of the other is to distort the reality of human experience. He is thus able to avoid not only the sentimentalism of nostalgia for the youthful joy and happiness of the past, but also despair over the the losses felt in the present. Recollecting the past as a living presence invests the present (despite all feelings of regret and frustration) with something positive.
In "After a Journey," which he probably wrote on his return to Max Gate, Hardy describes how he tried to follow Emma Gifford's ghost along the Cornish cliffs, through the scenes of their courtship. The poem begins with the poet’s hope that he will indeed encounter the "ghost" or spirit of his wife. At first, he feels "lonely, lost" amidst the Cornish cliffs and valleys where he had walked with her as a young man. He hopes that he will find her again in her former youthful beauty, with her "nut-coloured hair," her grey eyes and fresh, rosy complexion. But when he does feel in contact with her, characteristically, he imagines her reminding him of their unhappy life together as a married couple: how their joyous youth (like summer) was followed by the disappointments and friction ("division") of later years (like autumn). Undoubtedly, their life in the later years ("lastly") was not as happy as it was at the beginning ("firstly"). The poet sees human life in terms of the processes of nature and Time, noting that Time drives both natural and human lives from joy to sorrow.
But, equally characteristically, Hardy's comprehensive vision of Emma as both "all aglow" and a "thin ghost," leading him through "the spots we knew when we haunted here together," allows him to recognize happiness as well as sorrow. The adverb "frailly" is important: it not only indicates the nature of the pursuit of the "thin ghost" but also suggests what a frail old man he has become. This recognition of time's effects on both of them enhances the note of triumph Hardy achieves in the final movement of the poem. Now that Time has done its "work," as it were, the poet finds that this human mind of his can imaginatively recreate and recapture the joys of youth. He feels that following the "ghost" of his wife has allowed him once again to respond joyously to the natural beauty of the surroundings, the waterfall and the "fair weather." He has indeed been transported to their youth of decades before, when they were both young.
True, the poet also realizes that this imaginative vision cannot last long, and that the "thin ghost" of his wife will soon vanish, once the stars disappear and the dawn "whitens hazily." Nevertheless, he is grateful for being able to experience such a vision, despite the realities of life that threaten to annihilate it ("Life lours"). In fact, he asks Emma to bring him back to these scenes again, so that he can again appreciate the past as a living presence, when their “days were a joy" and their "paths through flowers."
- Thomas Hardy: A Biographical Sketch
- Emma Lavinia Gifford
- Valency Valley and Environs, Cornwall
- Cliffs and Bays of North Cornwall
Banerjee, A. An Historical Evaluation of Thomas Hardy's Poetry. Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.
Hardy, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Hardy. Wordsworth Poetry Library. Ware, Herts.: Wordsworth Editions, 1994.
Created 5 January 2003