‘Last Hope’ by Paul Verlaine is a four stanza poem that is separated into two sets of four lines and two sets of three lines. These stanzas can be referred to as quatrains, those containing four lines, and tercets, those containing three. this poem also utilizes a rhyme scheme of abba ccde ffe dgg.
This particular version of the poem was translated from the original French by Norman R. Shapiro.
In the first stanza, the speaker describes a “humble stone” that exists next to a “wild” tree in a cemetery. It grew there of its own accord, it was not placed there purposefully. He furthers the scene by speaking of a bird that perches in the tree, returning every season, and singing a “sad and bittersweet” song. These elements represent the love between the speaker and his unnamed companion and listener.
In the second half of the poem, it becomes clear that the speaker has died and it is the love of the listener which is keeping him alive. He knows that there is no chance for him to live again, although he continues to hope for it. He asks that she never forget him as his memory will not cool and decay like his body.
Analysis of Last Hope
Beside a humble stone, a tree
Floats in the cemetery’s air,
Not planted in memoriam there,
But growing wild, uncultured, free.
In the first stanza of ‘Last Hope’, the speaker begins by placing the poem’s setting in a location that is both dark and beautiful. This is the first of many instances in which the speaker makes use of contrasts and contrasting elements. Verlaine has chosen to utilize this technique over and over again in this poem in an effort to tap into his reader’s emotions. The more images his words can evoke, the more meaningful the poem will be.
In the first lines, the speaker describes a “humble stone.” This stone turns out to be a marker for a grave. He is juxtaposing the honour and reverence which normally accompanies a headstone with simplicity. This particular marker is not grand or overly impressive, it is “humble” and simple.
In the next phrase, he describes the stone as sitting “Beside…a tree.” While this in itself is not particularly rare, how the speaker describes the tree makes the scene special. The tree appears to “Float” in the “cemetery’s air.” There could be a number of different reasons why the tree looks like this, but it is likely due to a layer of fog or mist hovering over the ground and disguising the base of the tree.
The final two lines of this quatrain provide the reader with more background information about how the tree came to be beside the headstone. It was not, as some might guess, planted “in memoriam.” It grew of its own accord, it is “wild, uncultured, free.” There are no societal rules controlling how large, or in what direction the tree may grow, nor has it come to this place with a specific purpose.
A bird comes perching there to sing,
Winter and summer, proffering
Its faithful song—sad, bittersweet.
That tree, that bird are you and I:
In the second stanza, the speaker continues on to refer to himself in the first person for the first time in these lines. He also speaks directly to “you,” the listener. This person, to whom he has been directing, and will direct, the entire poem, is a dear lover. With her memory in mind, he speaks of a “bird” which comes and perches on the branches of the “wild” tree “to sing.” It is attracted by the wildness the tree represents, and the tree is drawn to the “faithful song” of the bird.
The bird returns every season, “Winter and summer,” to sit amongst the branches and sing. The song is both “sad” and “bittersweet.” The relationship which exists between the tree and the bird represents that which lives between the speaker and his unnamed, undefined lover. They are drawn to one another, one faithful, the other wild and free.
You, memory; absence, me, that tide
And time record. Ah, by your side
To live again, undying! Aye,
In the first tercet, and second to the last stanza of the poem, the speaker continues defining what the relationship is like between himself and his lover. They are two sides of the same life. They contrast one another but are also one another’s complements.
It becomes clear in this stanza the relationship is over. It is eventually hinted at that the speaker may in fact be dead, but at this point, he is still trying to get across how they worked together as a couple. One was the “memory,” the other, “absence.” These two things were recorded by the passage of time. They only exist in the memories of the past now.
In the final lines of this section, the speaker cries out to his listener. He is pleading with her and with God that he should have another chance to be “by [her] side and to “live again, undying!” He is wishing for a second chance, or at least more days by this person’s side before death takes him.
To live again! But ma petite,
Now nothingness, cold, owns my flesh. . .
Will your love keep my memory fresh
In the fourth stanza, the speaker continues with the same thought. He is hoping with everything he has that he could “live again!” Although he deeply wishes this, he knows it is impossible.
“Now,” he states, “nothingness” and “cold” own his “flesh.” He is subject to the darkness and decay of death. There is only one thing which he hopes might keep him alive, at least in some form. He asks his lover if her “love [will] keep [his] memory fresh.” If this is the case then perhaps he will be able, to some extent anyway, survive.