Neutral Tones is ostensibly about the narrator’s feelings regarding a break up. 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.
Colour is used throughout Neutral Tones to emphasise the tone of the poem. This is perhaps unsurprising given the poems title. All references to colour appear to be pale, ashen colours rather than the beautiful vibrant colours 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.
Form and Tone in Neutral Tones
Neutral Tones is atypical of a Hardy poem and synonymous with poems produced in the romantic style. Consequently it is filled 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 and there is a consistent ABBA rhyming pattern throughout.
Although the poem is quoted in full below, you can read the poem without interruption here at Poetry Foundation.
Neutral Tones Analysis
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.
It would be easy to sense a gloomy tone to this poem. 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.
Hardy uses really 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. This stanza continues 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 about 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.
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.
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 on in this stanza.
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 really 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 his poetry.
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….
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 you will read today! Suggesting that their former lover’s smile was dead invokes the idea of somebody who is entirely dis-genuine. It almost makes one think of a sociopath.
The cruel reality of this poem is we never really learn what has caused this heightened level of angst and fury. An obvious assumption would be infidelity but this is never explicitly stated. 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 a painting a pretty picture of the narrators ex.
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.
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 break up. You need to learn from the previous relationship. Take what you can, in terms of experience and move on letting go of the resentment. In the first two lines of this stanza there is a suggestion that this has happened. Although the narrator claims that their experience has shaped them. We then see it clearly 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.
It could be interpreted that the narrator is trying hard to make the journey from being heartbroken to finding colour 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. One of the beauties of this poem is the fact that you never really know why the poet has such strong feelings towards their former partner. That uncertainty creates a 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 you 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.
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 really renowned for his poetry during the course of his life. It wouldn’t be until the twentieth century that his poetry really found an audience.