Thomas Hardy is best known as a novelist and this fame has long overshadowed his reputation as a poet. Most of his poems are “movingly mournful” as they were written soon after the death of his first wife. Written in 1867, this poem was part of an anthology called Wessex Poems that was published in 1898. Among Hardy’s early poems, this one has been singled out for much praise. The Wessex Poems are marked by a lack of adornment; they are generally bleak like the countryside that forms the background to most of these poems. The recurring theme in this anthology is disappointment in love and life; here in Neutral Tones it is the end of a relationship that was at one time full of love.
Much of Hardy’s work is marked by a strong streak of pessimism and this poem, Neutral Tones, is no exception to that rule. Hardy’s attitude to life was tempered by many things: rapid industrialization which saw traditional life changing apace that unsettled Hardy, the expansion of the British Empire that he opposed, the failure of his first marriage and his opposition to change. In Neutral Tones, Hardy carefully examines a dying relationship that once a source of delight. A state of melancholia is invoked in the reader by using the somber and cold environment as an objective correlative.
At the heart of the poem lies a failed relationship. The environment mirrors this death like situation. The sun lacks its characteristic golden warm and the ground is frosty and starving. The only colors that the poet describes are white and grey. The ash stands bare; its last grey leaves flutter down. The man and the woman have very little to speak; what they do utter, hastens the death of their love. The smile that hovers on the woman’s face is compared to that of an “ominous bird” that symbolizes death and decay. The scene imprints itself with such force on the narrator’s mind that henceforth every time he thinks of the deceitful nature of love, his mind conjures this scene before his eyes.
The first line uses mostly monosyllabic words marking the lack of any movement. The man and the woman are inert; they merely stand by the pond. It is cold yet they are out in the open.
The second line sets forth this scene: the sun shines with a bleached white light, it lacks its golden glow. Its looks as though it has been censured by God. The word ‘chidden’ is an old fashioned one for ‘rebuke’.
The third line adds more to the description of the depressing scene. The earth appears to be starving; it lacks life giving moisture and is frosty perhaps. A few leaves lie scattered on the hard soil.
The fourth line introduces an element of dark humor. The leaves are from an ash and so they are grey colored. They are also grey because they are dead leaves.
The first line says the woman gazed at the narrator. The enjambment at the end of the line that ends with the word ‘rove’ makes us expect some unpleasant fact in the next line.
In the second line we know what it is. The woman does not look at the narrator with love or affection. The expression in them is one of boredom which would be aroused if one were to scan tedious riddles that have already been solved. There is no life, no interest left in them.
Some desultory conversation was exchanged by them but these too lacked vigor and life.
The fourth line says that the words that were exchanged served only to kill the little love that lingered between them.
The first line describes the smile that hovers on her lips. The smile is not a vibrant thing that transports the narrator to joy but it is dead. It has no significance or meaning being dead.
In words filled with irony, the narrator says that the smile had only enough life to make the effort to die! The metaphor used has shades of an oxymoron as life is not generally associated with death. A smile is a gesture connected with happiness and joy but here it is death.
The smile was transformed into a horrible bitter grin; it seemed to sweep over her face.
The fourth line compares the grin to a flying bird that portends death and destruction, may be a raven or a vulture. This line hints that the woman is evil and capable of bringing harm to the narrator.
Ever since this relationship broke, whenever the narrator has had similarly bitter experiences which have brought home to him the fact that love is not permanent and it has a deceptive side to it…
And it can cause terrible pain to an individual, his mind conjures…
The image of this woman and the bleached sun which seemed to bear God’s curse, a tree…
And a pond that is surrounded with dying and dead leaves.
The poem is suffused with despair but nowhere is the tone of neutral melancholy really broken. Though the poem is in first person and it speaks of the bitterness that comes after a failed relationship, the narrator sounds strangely detached – as though he realizes that there is nothing left to grieve for. Though he speaks unflatteringly of the woman, he does not seem to blame her for the breakdown. The ABBA rhyme scheme that the poet uses does not permit any escape. The inconsistent and stumbling rhythm of the lines indicates that the relationship has no life left in it. The poem begins and ends with the pond conveying the lack of any positive movement.