After the Last Breath (J.H. 1813–1904)

There's no more to be done, or feared, or hoped;

None now need watch, speak low, and list, and tire;

No irksome crease outsmoothed, no pillow sloped

        Does she require.

Blankly we gaze.  We are free to go or stay;

Our morrow's anxious plans have missed their aim;

Whether we leave to-night or wait till day

        Counts as the same.

The lettered vessels of medicaments

Seem asking wherefore we have set them here;

Each palliative its silly face presents

        As useless gear.

And yet we feel that something savours well;

We note a numb relief withheld before;

Our well-beloved is prisoner in the cell

        Of Time no more.

We see by littles now the deft achievement

Whereby she has escaped the Wrongers all,

In view of which our momentary bereavement

        Outshapes but small.

Hardy writes this elegy as if immediately after his mother’s death. All the business of nursing, the anxiety, the little tasks that surround the sickbed are now unnecessary.

In the first verse, Hardy keeps repeating, ‘no more to be done’; ‘none now need watch (stay awake at night by the sick woman’s bed)’; ‘no irksome crease outsmoothed’ (crease in the sheets to be smoothed out).

The emotional tensions are over: ‘no more …feared, or hoped’; so are the specially quiet behaviour and constant observation of the invalid: ‘watch (stay awake through the night), speak low, and list (listen)’.

Hardy experiences and depicts an unexpected feeling of wellbeing in this poem, perhaps surprising in an elegy on his mother. He does so in other elegies: for example, in ‘Thoughts of Phena’ Hardy delights in ‘the best of her’ and this, too, is an elegy on the occasion of the death of a loving relationship. In his dark ode on the death of the century, ‘The Darkling Thrush’, he finds ‘some blessed hope’ that he had not looked for.

Hardy’s poetry is full of surprises.

Recited by: Vandita Narayan

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