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Analysis of Poem "Neutral Tones" by Thomas Hardy

Updated on March 20, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy | Source

Thomas Hardy and Neutral Tones

Neutral Tones is a poem that deals with love, reflection and emotional hurt. A relationship is about to end. The speaker looks back to a particular day when all seemed neutral, pale and lacking hope. Even the sun has let them down.

Thomas Hardy wrote the poem in 1867 but it wasn't published until 1898, in Wessex Poems. Hardy had returned to his first love, poetry, having published his final novel Jude the Obscure in 1895.

Neutral Tones has a melancholic beauty about it. The bleak imagery evokes a scene of emptiness and spent joy; the two lovers have little of importance to say to each other and the speaker finds no solace in his ex-partner's expression.

With the passage of time comes harsh reality - he has been taught a sharp lesson - love is sometimes a lie and has led him away from the truth.

Neutral Tones

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
– They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
On which lost the more by our love.

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing….

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

Summary of Poem Neutral Tones

A reflective speaker looks back to a certain fateful day in winter. Two lovers meet, perhaps for the last time, to decide if their relationship is worth preserving.The scene is set in the countryside or in a park. It is dull, even the pale sun cannot break through. Suspicion and mistrust are suggested; questions raised years ago are still unanswered and smiles are painfully false. The indifferent speaker, a victim, learning a hard truth, unreconciled, is back where it all began.

Analysis of Neutral Tones

Neutral Tones is a four stanza, 16 line poem, with a set rhyme scheme abba, all full end rhymes except for the slant rhyme rove/love in the second quatrain. Rhyme helps keep order and sense, which is what the speaker needs after such reflection?

With a mix of iambs and anapaests in tetrameter and trimeter there is a varied rhythm throughout. Enjambment helps maintain momentum, punctuation slows it down, most noticeably in the final stanza.

The first three stanzas focus on the past meeting of two lovers; the final quatrain is a reflection on that meeting, a memory. It is obvious from the speaker's tone that they didn't have much between them as they stood near the wintry pond. The reader is left to make their own conclusions.

Further Analysis

Tone/Atmosphere

This poem's title says it all. Brightness, life and joy are absent, instead there is just this hollow, empty feeling. The tone is one of reflection and melancholy. The speaker is looking back and recalling this presumably final meeting, both lovers resigned to the fact that their relationship is at an end, beyond revivial.

Through memory the speaker reminds himself of the loss of a now indifferent partner and the consequences of being deceived in love. There is some ambiguity; there is no definitive conclusion but the speaker seems uncomfortable.

Diction/Language

This love poem is based on the experience of a disappointed speaker, someone who lost love in a painful manner. Several words reflect this negative point of view:

chidden - from chide, to rebuke or tell off.

starving - lack of nourishment.

grey - dull colour of the fallen leaves.

tedious - slow and boring, tiresome.

lost - gone, never to be found.

deadest - without life.

bitterness - resentment.

ominous - threatening.

deceives - misleads.

wrong - that which is not right.

God-curst - cursed by God.

So the whole poem has this sense of lifelessness running through it, the speaker unable or unwilling to inject anything positive into the experience.

Poetic Devices in Neutral Tones

Alliteration - leaves lay/fallen from/wrings with wrong.

Simile - Like an ominous bird a-wing...

Oxymoron - (contradictory terms in the same sentence) for example: The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing/Alive enough to have strength to die;

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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