In the poem Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy, the speaker learns that the relationship has reached a dead end and that he has to let go. Even though he feels a sense of deadness and numbness at the situation, the only way to feel alive again and to move on from his depressive state of mind is to truly separate from his former lover. Below, you can find the full analysis of the poem:
- Sod – the surface of the ground, with the grass growing on it
- Chidden – scold or rebuke
- Rove – a journey, especially one with no specific destination; an act of wandering
- Tedious – too long, slow, or dull; tiresome or monotonous
- Grin – smile broadly
- Deceives – deliberately cause (someone) to believe something that is not true, especially for personal grin
- Wring – cause pain or distress to
- Curst – cursed
STORY / SUMMARY
We stood by a pond that winter day, and the sun was as white, as though God was scolding us, and a few leaves lay on the starving surface of the ground; – they had fallen from an ash tree, and were gray.
Your eyes on me were like eyes that look over boring riddles from years ago; and some words played between us to and fro, on these words our love lost even more.
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing – alive just enough to have strength to die; and a grin of bitterness swept over it, like an ominous bird flying…
Since then, I’ve learned keen lessons that love deceives, and hurts with wrong, have shaped to me your face, and the God-cursed sun, and a tree, and a pond edged with greyish leaves.
SPEAKER / VOICE
This poem is written in first person, hence the speaker’s perspective on the relationship is the only one that is given. The speaker is in a sad, depressive mood as he recounts an anecdote between him and his former lover that the moment when their relationship broke off. The title suggests that this poem is neither full of exuberant emotion, nor devastating heartbreak: the writer’s tone is ‘neutral’ and unemotional, much like the two lovers’ tone throughout their conversation.
Sibilance – ‘Share in its shame’ and ‘silence and tears.’ The ‘starving sod‘ is not simply a profoundly alliterative noun phrase that adds to the sensation of cold through its sibilance; ‘starving’ is used to mean ‘hungry’ or ‘dying of hunger’, but in the Victorian era it also signified ‘death’ – so for contemporary readers, the word would have far more finality than it does to us now.
Symbolism – Like the relationship, the leaves are deteriorating. They appear to be grey and have lost their colour. It’s interesting to note that the last stanza leaves (which are probably from the same tree) are “greyish”, almost as if the speaker is standing where the memory is stronger than the present. Moreover, water is frequently employed by poets to symbolise life; in this instance, the little, motionless body of water emphasises how the relationship isn’t going anywhere.
Metaphors – The poem has a few metaphors that are typically employed to highlight the gravity of the depressing points Hardy is attempting to communicate. For instance, the smile of the speaker’s lover is said to be “Alive enough to have strength to die.” This description is also synecdochic – where the ‘smile’ of the hostility toward one another. Additionally, Hardy talks about how their comments ‘played’ off of one another, meaning that their connection was worthless and insignificant, like a game at this point in their relationship.
Simile – ‘Your eyes on me where as eyes that rove’ and ‘the sun was white, as though chidden of God’. The poet employs similes here with the intention of adding to the overall visual imagery of the poem. The former simile suggests that the speaker is being tested and scrutinised, but only in a cruel way because there is no chance of the relationship recovering. The phrase ‘chidden of God’ is echoed at the end of the poem with the ‘God crust sun’, creating a cynical image of the white sun which is bright, but cold and lifeless, as though the energy and passion of it have swindled.
The semantic field of Death – Hardy constantly cites death to evoke a sombre atmosphere. The eerie allusion subverts the meaning of a smile to illustrate how something that should be joyful (the relationship) has developed into something torturous by referring to his former lover’s grin creepily as ‘the deadest thing’. This impression is furthered by the use of the phrase ‘Alive enough to have strength to die’, as if its energy is bent on its own self-destruction.
Syndetic listing – ‘Your face, and the God crust sun, and a tree, / And a pond edged with greyish leaves.’ This list enables the speaker to accumulate images and connect, convince, and capture the scene which evokes his final moments with the addressee. The poet uses a practical, nonchalant tone to list these details as if the speaker’s emotions have truly failed him at this crucial juncture in his life.
Double Entendre – the poem’s Title contains a double meaning, which is like a pun – the term ‘neutral tones’ refers firstly to the neutral, unemotional and practical tone that the former lovers take with each other, however, it is also reflective of the wider depiction of a grey, wintry landscape which is itself devoid of life and colour – using pathetic fallacy to reinforce the emotion.
STRUCTURE / FORM
Metre and Rhyme – There are four stanzas in the poem. The rhyme scheme uses the traditional abba (enclosed rhyme) structure. The rhymed line pairs promote the idea of an impartial retelling of the story by adding to the poem’s simple tone. In traditional poetry, the pattern of three iambic quadrameters followed by a trimeter, which rhymes ‘ABAB’ was known as ‘long metre’. This, though, doesn’t quite suit Hardy’s metrical system. He was a significant creator of metrical forms throughout his career, frequently experimenting with various patterns and rhythms in his writing. In the instance of Neutral Tones, ABBA’s arch-rhyme structure borrows the sombreness of an elegy, and the rhythmic pattern resembling a long metre aids in the straightforward narration of a narrative. The poem’s rhythmic structure is also inconsistent. This may be a reflection of the uneasy feeling that existed between the two parties and contributed to the final dissolution of their relationship.
Volta – the fourth stanza serves as a turning point for the poem. This stanza’s structure is especially halting (observe how the third line is divided), which may indicate that the speaker does not feel as impartial toward the recollection as the title would imply.
The poem’s general structure is circular rather than linear because it begins and ends in the same location, with a similar image of a bleak, white sun. According to one critic, the speaker is revisiting the experience because they have not yet processed what happened.
Hardy describes the scene in clear, simple sentences that create a picture without providing concrete details or naming the addressee herself. Hardy is therefore able to accomplish this ‘neutrality’ of tone. For instance, he adds details like an afterthought, with conjunctions such as 0And the sun was white,’ after the opening line, which paints a fairly simple picture of a day the poet expects his audience to recognise (‘that day’). He then adds another detail, ‘And a few leaves lay on the starved sod.’ The speaker indicates that he did not care enough to count or remember the details by using quantifiers like ‘a few’ and ‘some’, or perhaps the recollection is too unpleasant for him to try to remember the details.
Thomas Hardy was a late Victorian novelist and poet. Much of his poetry is autobiographical, commenting on his relationships and their difficulties or failures. He famously wrote a great deal of his poetry about his first wife. Emma, from whom he became estranged, although he mourned her death for the rest of his life.
Neutral Tones, however, was written about a previous relationship prior to Emma, that did not last. Although the poem was composed in 1867 (when Hardy was 27 years old), it wasn’t included in his collection ‘the Wessex Poems’ until more than 20 years later. Perhaps this is because of the particular memory from which Hardy drew inspiration was too painful or unresolved for him. There are various theories about the woman in the poem. Some critics think that the poem in fact describes the end of an affair with Tryphena Sparks, one of Hardy’s cousins, as he had begun courting Emma, his wife-to-be.
Endings can be painful – This is a poem which shows a dying kind of love. It is riddled with saddening diction which indicates the end of a relationship. Despite the implication that the speaker once loved his partner, the relationship is now fraught with resentment and bitterness. Her beautiful smile eventually becomes ‘the deadest thing/Alive enough to have strength to die’, hence the relationship must come to an end.
We need to let go once things have run their course. The speaker learns that the relationship has reached a dead end and that he has to let go. Although he feels a sense of deadness and numbness at the situation, the only way to feel alive again and to move on from his depressive state of mind is to truly separate from his former lover.
Religion can be a comfort, or a burden, in times of difficulty. Hardy struggled with his religious beliefs throughout his life. Sometimes he is quite spiritual while others he expresses views close to atheism. The ‘God’ in the poem certainly disapproves of the union of these two lovers. The word ‘chidden’ implies that he scorns or scolds them. On the other hand, the term ‘God curst’ would have been quite shocking to a contemporary Victorian reader. It suggests a sense of finality, that the relationship is truly doomed as it is spiritually unsanctioned. This may also reflect deeper attitudes about charity and marriage that were inherent in Victorian society – as unions of wedlock were severely frowned upon.
- Romance and Courtship
- How do Hardy’s words and images make the poem Neutral Tones so sad?
- How does Hardy make Neutral Tones such a powerful portrayal of disappointment in love?
- In Neutral Tones, how does the poet present the speaker’s feelings about relationships?
- Explore the ways in which Hardy makes you strongly sympathise with the speaker in Neutral Tones.
- How does Hardy demonstrate in the poem Neutral Tones that the past is just as significant as the present?