‘Neutral Tones’ is ostensibly about the narrator’s feelings regarding a breakup. In that respect, it could be likened to James Fenton’s ‘In Paris With You’ however this piece is very different in tone. The narrator seems to reflect on their relationship in a very negative way and it is not really about the narrator moving on, more so reflecting on their past. More often than not in romantic poetry nature is used to describe things of beauty but this poem is very different, very subversive, as it uses nature to create a bleak image.
Explore Neutral Tones
This poem by Thomas Hardy is characteristic of typical poems by this author in many ways. First, the speaker in the poem has a sarcastic and cynical view of love and relationships, which is not uncommon in Hardy’s poetry. Second, he mentions God but also gives the readers the idea that God is distant and cold. This is yet another aspect of Neutral Tones that characterizes it as one of Hardy’s poems. The speaker in this poem seems to be a person who has given his heart and soul to a person who has left him bitter, feeling used and wronged. The poetic persona of this piece is a reflection of Hardy, in his cynical feelings toward love.
‘Neutral Tones’ is atypical of a Hardy poem and synonymous with poems produced in the romantic style. Consequently, it is filled with references to the natural world. As is common in Hardy’s poetry it is very much character-driven and tells a story. It presents itself in four stanzas that are all four lines long. There is a consistent ABBA rhyming pattern throughout. As an example, in the first stanza “day” rhymes with “gray”. Along with that, “God” and “sod” rhymes together. The metrical scheme of this poem is regular enough. Here, the poet uses both the iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter alternatively. However, there are a few metrical variations in this poem.
This poem contains several literary devices that make this piece more interesting to read. To begin with, there is anaphora in the first stanza. The poet uses this device in the second and third lines of this stanza. Moreover, the poet uses a simile to compare the whiteness of the winter sun to a child’s face rebuked by the child’s parents. The “chidden of God” is a metaphor. The second stanza of this piece contains the use of irony. Thereafter, in the third stanza, the poet uses hyperbole in the first line and the second line contains a paradox. In the last stanza, the phrase, “wrings with wrong” contains an alliteration. Moreover, the last two lines of this stanza contain polysyndeton.
Colour is used throughout ‘Neutral Tones’ to emphasize the tone of the poem. This is perhaps unsurprising given the poem’s title. All references to color appear to be pale, ashen colors rather than the beautiful vibrant colors often associated with nature and poems that reference the natural world. Of course, the title uses the word neutral which might suggest that the narrator has neutral feelings regarding his former relationship, but the tone of the poem reveals this to not be the case. Far from being neutral, it seems he has strong negative feelings.
Analysis of Neutral Tones
We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
It would be easy to sense the gloomy tone of this poem, ‘Neutral Tones’. Straight away Hardy invokes a sense of rejection by setting the scene in the winter which people automatically associate with the cold and therefore negative emotions. This is commonplace in romantic literature, one of Hardy’s inspirations was Chares Dickens who used the cold as a metaphor for the icy nature of the character Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”.
The poet begins this poem by describing the scenery. This allows the speaker to connect with the reader by entering into the place and time with the speaker. He describes standing by a pond on a winter day. Immediately, the reader can imagine a cold, still, and lifeless scene. Though it might be beautiful, there is little movement or life on a frozen pond.
The speaker continues to describe the scenery, explaining that “the sun was white as though chidden of God” This is an interesting way to describe the sun. While the sun is usually what brings light and warmth, in this description, it is simply white. On the cold winter day, it would seem that the sun can offer no warmth. Rather, it seems as if it has hidden away behind the clouds because it has been chastised (“chidden”) by God himself.
Moreover, Hardy uses emotive, bordering on melodramatic, language to describe the sun. He claims it looks like it had been rejected by god. The powerful language creates a sense of a man with strong emotions.
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
– They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.
The last two lines of this stanza continue in this dramatic fashion with the narrator claiming that leaves lay starving, personifying them and simultaneously suggesting they are dying. This is powerful stuff. The narrator uses a potent play on words when he mentions the ash tree. Once again when one thinks of ash they think of fire, and possibly cremation and therefore death. This first stanza paints a very glum picture indeed.
Moreover, the speaker continues to describe the scenery, expressing that there are few signs of life left. These, he describes as a “few leaves” that “lay on the starving sod”. Even the leaves, though they represent the few signs of life that are left, he describes as having fallen “from an ash”.
Thus, they were “gray”. The color gray often symbolizes something dull, lifeless, or perhaps simply “neutral”. This ties in with the title of this poem. The speaker indicates with the title, “Neutral Tones” not only that there is little color in the scenery he will describe, but also that there is no feeling in the person to whom he speaks. He describes his feelings, as well as hers, as being “neutral”.
The title could also indicate that the speaker believes himself to be describing things as they are, maintaining a neutral attitude toward all that had happened between himself and the addressee. In either way, he effectively describes the scenery about him. Everything about the scenery described here seems bleak and near death. There is no life and no warmth, only a frozen pond, a few dead leaves, and the starving earth. With these descriptions, the speaker brings the reader into his sense of despair.
Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
In the first line of this stanza, the narrator suggests that their former partner had a roving eye. This means that they were probably unfaithful which would begin to shed some light on the outpouring that made up the majority of the previous stanza. The line placement is very clever though as the enjambment line suggests that her eye was roving over riddles from years ago. Once again this sounds like the narrator is very bitter and this continues in this stanza.
Besides, this is the first stanza of ‘Neutral Tones’ that reveals that the speaker is talking to someone specifically, not just to his readers. He talks to the person he was with on that cold dreary day.
The speaker tells her, “your eyes on me were as eyes that rove”. He is telling this person that he already knew that her eyes and heart were not focused on him. Rather, they “roved”, perhaps looking for something better, or perhaps because she had already found someone else. In either case, the speaker reveals that he knew then, at the pond on that cold winter day, that she did not have eyes nor heart for him.
And some words played between us to and fro
On which lost the more by our love.
The following line allows the readers to further understand the relationship between the speaker and the addressee. It appears as though the two had years of relationship between them, but they seemed like “tedious riddles”. This reveals that the speaker feels as though he never knew the addressee entirely. Rather, he felt as though he were trying to decipher riddles when he tried to understand her. In the final line, he reveals that there may have been true love between them at one point, but it was lost over the years as he tried to solve the riddles, to figure out the person he was supposed to love.
The words Hardy uses are very telling when he talks about “words playing between them.” The insinuation here could be that the words they shared didn’t mean anything, that they were like play to a child. Hardy was always a poet who chose every word meticulously. Every word’s inclusion is deliberate and means something. There’s seldom a wasted word in Thomas Hardy’spoetry.
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
One of the best things about ‘Neutral Tones’ is its unrelenting nature. There is no sense of peaks and troughs, effectively the narrator is letting their ex-partner have “both barrels” to use a modern term. The first line of this poem might be one of the most “cutting” statements one has ever read! Suggesting that their former lover’s smile was dead invoking the idea of somebody who is entirely dis-genuine. It almost makes one think of a sociopath.
Moreover, this stanza reveals the speaker’s reasons for not being able to understand the addressee. The speaker seems to believe that the reason he never fully understood her, was because she was not forthright with him and did not feel genuine love for him. This is why he says that her smile “was the deadest thing”. It was not real to him, and it did not reflect true joy or peace in their relationship with one another.
It seems the speaker is not alone in feeling a sense of disconnect. Therefore, it appears that the woman in this relationship also felt that the relationship was dead. The speaker continues to describe her smile, claiming that it was only “alive enough to have strength to die”. This is the speaker’s description of the very moment at which the relationship died completely. Her smile, dead as it was, had enough life left in it to let the speaker know that her love for him was truly dead.
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing….
The cruel reality of this poem is readers never learn what has caused this heightened level of angst and fury. An obvious assumption would be infidelity but this is never explicitly stated.
However, the speaker describes this moment as a bitter one, when she smiled at him with “a grin of bitterness…like an ominous bird”. Thus, it would appear that the speaker was not the only one who felt ill-used. Both seemed to feel not only a loss of love for one another but also a sense of bitterness and the feeling that they had been wronged.
The language and the metaphors in this part of the poem are complex and difficult to interpret. What is obvious though is the meaning of individual words. If we were to take the following words in isolation: die, grin, bitterness, ominous. These are not words that paint a pretty picture of the narrator’s former partner.
Moreover, one of the beauties of this poem is the fact that one never knows why the poet has such strong feelings towards their former partner. That uncertainty creates dramatic tension. It makes a person want to know more about the narrator’s backstory. This is the hallmark of a good poem. A poem gives one a window into a world and a good poem will make you want to peak back in that window later to find out what has changed.
Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
There is a brief sense of resolution in this final stanza. A feeling that maybe the narrator has begun to move on. The narrator concedes to having learned lessons. In many ways, that’s what needs to happen after a breakup. One needs to learn from the previous relationship. Take what one can, in terms of experience and move on letting go of the resentment.
This stanza reveals that some time has passed since the scene at the winter pond. The speaker reveals that he has learned some “keen lessons” since that time. He has ultimately concluded, “that love deceives”. His claim that love “wrings with wrong” is significant. The word “wrings” is intentional wordplay. The word “love” seems to “ring” with wrong. The speaker, however, uses the word “wring” to indicate what has happened to him, and the way that his heart has been wrung through the deceit of love. Everything seems to remind the speaker of what love has done to his heart.
In the first two lines of this stanza, there is a suggestion of what has happened before. Although the narrator claims that their experience has shaped them. We then see it hasn’t shaped them into a well-adjusted forgiving person as they once again find new ways to lambast their former lover. Once again returning to the imagery and drudgery of the first stanza. This reusing of words is key and suggests a circular emotional journey.
Your face, and the God curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with grayish leaves.
In the first line of this section, he remembers the woman’s face, along with “the God curst sun”. This reveals his belief that God has cursed not only the sun but his own heart and ability to love as well. All of these feelings are innately tied to the scenery of the place where this love died. For this reason, he ends ‘Neutral Tones’ with the description of the “pond edged with grayish leaves”. He repeats the description of the leaves as “grayish” to reiterate his feelings about love.
The title comes into play again with the last line. The word “gray” also symbolizing something dull or “neutral” ties back to the title by reminding the addressee and the readers that he believes himself to be neutral toward the idea of love, and also that he has tried his best to describe what had happened in ‘Neutral Tones’. The double meaning, of course, is that the scenery he has described all along was also full of neutral color tones such as gray and white. As the leaves were gray and dull, so are his feelings toward love. He feels hurt and deceived by love, and he has grown dull and dead to the idea of loving another person.
It could be interpreted that the narrator is trying hard to make the journey from being heartbroken to finding color in the word but always seems to wind back at square one. Perhaps it is because of this feeling of a lack of progress that the narrator feels so much bitterness.
About Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy is a famous and much-lauded poet and novelist. Hardy lived during the Victorian era and was influenced heavily by the romantics. He took inspiration from the poetry of William Wordsworth and the writing of Charles Dickens. Hardy’s most notable piece of writing is the highly studied and well-read “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. Hardy, although he considered himself a poet, was not renowned for his poetry during his life. It wouldn’t be until the twentieth century that his poetry found an audience.
Discover more about Thomas Hardy or read more of his poetry.
The following list of poems showcases similar types of themes present in Thomas Hardy’s lyric ‘Neutral Tones’.
- A Leave-Taking by Algernon Charles Swinburne – This poem describes how the poet took leave from the lady who betrayed him in love.
- Blame not my Lute! by Sir Thomas Wyatt – Through this poem, the speaker ironically tells his beloved not to blame his “lute” as it speaks the truth.
- Mean Time by Carol Ann Duffy – Carol Ann Duffy, former poet laureate of the UK, connects the fading of light and the beginning of the winter season to the loss of love. It’s one of Duffy’s best poems.
- Feelings by Spike Milligan – This poem is about a speaker’s mental state, gone through a series of painful incidents.
You can also read about the best poems of Thomas Hardy and some heartfelt poems on depression.