Elizabeth Jennings

Absence by Elizabeth Jennings

With this the feeling of loss through the scenery around her. Readers can connect with this poem Absence’ because most people have lost someone they love either to death or to falling out or the end of a relationship. When someone disappears, part of the shock is that other things stay the same. In Absence’, the speaker talks about going to a place where she last was when she met the person about whom the poem is written. She is disturbed by the lack of change that has taken place. While everything inside of her had changed, it seemed that nothing on the outside had changed. The speaker eloquently describes the way the lack of change in the scenery affected her.

Absence by Elizabeth Jennings


Absence Analysis

Stanza One

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 speaker opens this poem, which can be read in full here, in the second person, revealing to the readers that she is addressing someone who has been significant in her life. It is also clear in the first line that the person is not in her life anymore, because she has made the effort to visit “they place where [they] last met”. This person was clearly important to her, because she purposefully went to the place where she had last been with this person. In the next line, the speaker notes that “nothing was changed”. This may not seem significant at first, but it quickly becomes clear how very important this is to the speaker as she notes that the gardens were still “well-tended” as they always had been, and the fountains continue to work as they should. This indicates that she has taken note of life going on as normal. The gardens were still tended, which means that people were still tending to the gardens as they always had. Someone still set up the fountain and maintained it. This reveals a lack of change in other people’s lives. This seems unfamiliar to the speaker because her own life has changed so much. This indicates that the loss to which the speaker refers has been monumental in her life. If it had not been a life-altering loss, she would not have taken note of the fact that other people’s lives seemed to go on as normal. This implies that the speaker has likely experienced the death of someone close or perhaps the end of a romantic relationship. In either case, her life and future would have been altered entirely.

Her notice of all that has stayed the same in the place she visited reveals that she is cannot comprehend how day to day life can go on normally around her when her own life has been so drastically altered. The way the speaker portrays this allows readers to connect with Absence’. Most people who have experienced loss have also experienced the feeling of surprise that comes with the realization that life does go on and people continue to live as they always had. The fact that the world continues to function normally seems strange and unnatural to the person whose life has been so altered by a tragic loss.


Stanza Two

The thoughtless birds that shook out of the trees,
Or any discord shake the level breeze.

This stanza opens with the phrase “thoughtless birds”. This reveals the speaker’s sense of anger at the loss she has experienced. She wonders how the birds could go on singing in ecstasy when such a tragic loss has taken place. Again, the speaker refers to the feeling that life should not go on when such a loss has happened. The birds, however, are clearly unaware of the events of the speaker’s life, and so they do go on singing. The fact that the speaker refers to them as “thoughtless” reveals the resentment that she has buried inside. It comes out in her feelings toward the birds as they sing cheerful songs even as her own heart is so broken. This is why she admits that she “could not share” the ecstasy with the birds.

In the third line of this stanza, the speaker begins to think differently. She wonders, for a moment, if her pain is real, or if it is everything around her that is real. She says that the scenery and the sound of the birds “played cunning in [her] thoughts”. She suddenly wondered how there could possibly be such pain in the world when there was also such pleasure. This is her meaning when she says, “Surely in these pleasures, there could not be a pain to bear or any discord”. The speaker is trying to wrap her mind around the fact that pleasure and pain exist together. It seems to her that either the pleasure of the gardens and the singing of the birds is not real, or the pain of the loss she has experienced is not real. She cannot understand how both feelings could exist within her heart at the same time.


Stanza Three

It was because the place was just the same
Were shaken by my thinking of your name.

In the last stanza of Elizabeth Jenning‘s poem, the speaker concludes that the reason she feels both pleasure and intense pain at once because she was in a place that brought back sweeter memories, and yet simultaneously reminded her of what she no longer had. She believes that because the place she visited “was just the same” as it had been when she was there with the person to whom she speaks, it made the “absence seem a savage force”. The speaker, like anyone who has dealt with grief, knows that the pain can come and go in waves that leave one feeling crushed and empty. This is what she experiences when she comes to the place where she last met the one she lost. Even though at first she experienced the beauty of the garden and heard the cheerful sounds of the birds, her visit ended in grief. She explains, “For under all the gentleness there came an earthquake tremor”. Thus, by the end of Absence’, she reveals that nothing was the same after all. Even though the place looked the same and the birds sang the same tune, there was an underlying pain that shook her to her core like an earthquake shakes the earth.

Everything was undeniably different, though it may appear the same on the outside. The speaker says to the one she’s lost, “fountain, birds and grass were shaken by my thinking of your name”. Her confusion in the second stanza is made clear here. She wonders for a moment whether her pain is real, since everything around her still seems so gentle and pure and cheerful. But in the end, she concludes that all that might seem peaceful and happy is shaken by the mere thought of the name of the person she had loved and lost.

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Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
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