Learn English » English Literature » Poem 'Absence' by Elizabeth Jennings


Absence

I visited the place where we last met.
Nothing was changed, the gardens were well-tended,
The fountains sprayed their usual steady jet;
There was no sign that anything had ended
And nothing to instruct me to forget.

The thoughtless birds that shook out of the trees,
Singing an ecstasy I could not share,
Played cunning in my thoughts. Surely in these
Pleasures there could not be a pain to bear
Or any discord shake the level breeze.

It was because the place was just the same
That made your absence seem a savage force,
For under all the gentleness there came
An earthquake tremor: Fountain, birds and grass
Were shaken by my thinking of your name.

Analysis

The major theme of the poem is the absence of a loved one, and the destructive effect that such an absence can cause on others dear to him/her. Another theme is that of the unchanging nature of the physical landscape, in contrast with the changing nature of human relationships. The place is the same, but the lover or his/her love is absent.

Summary

The speaker of the poem visits a place that he/she last met the beloved one. The speaker says that the place looked the same since they met last,
“Nothing was changed, the gardens were well-tended,
The fountains sprayed their usual steady jet;”

The physical aspects of the place were the same; none had changed that would have caused the speaker to forget about the beloved one. The place was as pleasurable as ever, and looked as though no “pain” or “discord”.

However, just because the place was the same, the speaker feels the absence of the loved one all the more: It is a “savage force” and “an earthquake tremor”. Just the thought of the name of the loved one was enough to shake the physical aspects of the place: the birds, the grass and the Fountain.

Language and Form

Absence is a lyrical poem that consists of three quintets (stanzas with five verses each). It has a regular rhyme scheme in the form of ABABA CDCDC EFEFE.

Imagery and Figures of Speech

The images in the poem are both visual and kinaesthetic. The “well-tended” gardens and the “fountain” in the first stanza evoke in the mind’s eye a serene scenic spot: they are visual images. However, “The thoughtless birds that shook out of the trees” and “an earthquake tremor” evoke images of movement, and are kinaesthetic images. There is also hyperbole in the way the mere thought of the name of the loved one can feel like “an earthquake tremor”.

The poem, though simple and direct, conveys the sense of absence and loss very powerfully, through its clever use of opposites:

  • Birds singing in ecstasy vs the poet’s sense of loss
  • Gentleness vs earthquake tremor

Also, the sense of things being the same is reinforced in the first stanza by the repetition of words signifying lack of change. For example, “Nothing was changed”, “usual steady jet”, “no sign that anything had ended”, “nothing to instruct me to forget”.

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