In terms of comparison, you couldn’t go far wrong in looking at this poem alongside Winter Swans by Owen Sheers. Neutral Tones has some similar ideas and themes that Sheers picks up to explore in his poem, although this poem does not, of course, finish happily.
In terms of form, the poem is very straightforward: four stanzas of four lines. In this aspect, you can easily compare it with When We Two Parted. Written some sixty years after the Byron poem, you can notice how the form here is just a vehicle for condensing his thought rather than anything that supports the meaning of the poem, per se. It was published some thirty years after it was written, in 1898, and is very typical of Hardy’s turn-of-the-century poems. I’d go as far as to say it’s very typical of Hardy in general – he’s certainly a man who doesn’t shy away from the miserable and depressing. Marriage, religion and education all come under attack, and his depiction of several miserable marriages doesn’t leave readers with much faith in love. The theme of love’s disappointments is one he explores frequently.
When we consider the poem’s title, it perhaps gives us some reason for this ‘neutral’ form. The form in itself is so popular as to be meaningless. The enclosed rhyme ABBA makes each stanza neat and compact, a circle if you like. Each line falls in a syllabic length of between 8 and 11 syllables without any clear pattern. There are quite a lot of unstressed syllables and there’s not a clear pattern, which takes away any desire to make it either easy to read or ‘rhyme-y’. For instance, there are quite a lot of anapestic feet that go da-da-DUM, like this “by a POND… and the SUN… as though CHIDD/en of GOD… on the STARV/… and were GRAY”. Because you can do anapests that sound a bit Dr Seuss-y… “you have BRAINS in your HEAD, you have FEET in your SHOES” which is a very sing-song, harmonious rhythm and Hardy has few enough of the anapests so that it doesn’t sound sing-songy like Seuss. In fact, when you think he’s establishing any kind of rhythm, he throws you off balance. It’s more purposeful than normal speech, with some patterns, but not enough that you can get carried along by the rhythm. Neither disharmonious nor harmonious. Now that’s some clever use of stress and meter! It’s neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, but I’ll say one thing: just as you fall into a rhythm, it throws you off again and you find yourself stumbling over the words to stress, which makes it feel a bit awkward. That’s interesting to me, this awkward rhythm. I think it reveals much of his own state of mind.
Like Winter Swans and When We Two Parted, this poem is also written as a kind of confessional. We get that from the first word, “we” which gives us the initial sense of the relationship, but then we have “your” and “me” in stanza two which reveals the division. All of those personal pronouns, from “our” and “us” to “your” focuses the poem very much on the relationship. We are left to wonder which relationship he is writing about, and who this mysterious woman is, just as we are in the Byron poem. We are also left to wonder why he chooses to write this poem, to make it public (and to know that it was thirty years between writing and publication, which is interesting) and left with the same questions we have for the Sheers’ poem and that of Byron. Is it words he could never say to this person, a kind of confessional? Is it what he would say if he could? We ask the same things: it feels strangely private and I feel a bit odd reading it – like he’s put all his emotional wounds out on display for me to read. Similar to the Owen Sheers’ poem, it’s a bit unnerving on two levels: firstly in that we’re faced with the rawness of someone’s emotions, which we’re perhaps not so comfortable looking at, and secondly because it feels like we’re a bit of a Poetry Peeping Tom, and it’s always a bit uncomfortable when people are airing their personal stuff in public. All the same, you should ask yourself why he would publish something that is essentially private communication that is quite clearly about someone? Is it just that he happened upon a great emotion and he thought “I could make a great poem out of that?” or is it autobiographical? This is a technique that ties all three poems together and is worth reflecting on why you think they did this. Personally, I think they are words they could never say, things they wish they could have said. Poetry is such a great medium for a bit of introspective relationship navel-gazing. It’s the pre-emo vehicle for all contemplation of personal issues. You can see, however, how the poem has moved on from the now-old-fashioned “thee” form that we see in When We Two Parted.
Not only that, this is a different time period in the relationship. In fact, it spans two. First, it’s about “that” day, and the fourth stanza moves it on to “since then” showing how things have developed.
Like Owen Sheers, Hardy uses winter as the perfect backdrop to this dying relationship. Unlike Sheers’ poem, which is littered with positives, the breaking light, the birds, this has none of that. The sun’s a strange kind of post-apocalyptic “white” which reminds us of the title, “neutral tones” which works on two levels, firstly about colour, meaning those colours without colour, shades if you like. Ask any interior designer or fashion designer what neutral tones are and they’ll tell you that they’re those colours like grey and beige. But they’ll also tell you that neutrals often have undertones which I think is very relevant here (not that Thomas Hardy dipped in and out of Dulux catalogues pondering on the difference between Apple Blossom and Milk Pail) Ask a photographer about neutral and they’ll tell you that it refers to something in the middle, not black or white, not warm or cold. I think that adds quite a lot to our understanding of what Hardy meant. He has a poem which is written in what he suggests is a neutral tone (the second meaning of the poem) but has undertones all of its own. It’s not neutral at all. We also take neutral as a word in itself to consider what that means – that it refers to something unbiased, taking neither one side nor another. It can mean “grey” or emotionless too, kind of dull – but the mood of the relationship seems anything but that.
Like Sheers, we have the “pond”, this body of unmoving water, which is in keeping with the “neutrality” – it’s not the passionate seas or the ever-moving rivers. It’s still and motionless. The “winter” and the “white” sun also add to the image. White suggests an impartiality, but also a coldness and emotionlessness. This sun is not the cheery break in the rain that Sheers describes, this is a cold and dispassionate thing. The simile “as though chidden by God” is unusual. Chidden is the past tense of “chide”. Chide in itself is an old-fashioned word and the past participle of “chidden” is too. It means “told off” or “scolded” and is an image also used by Shakespeare (with the Roman Gods Mercury and Jove) the simile puts a dampener on the mood of the poem too: why would God tell the sun off? And the sun’s reaction is to burn colder, whiter. It puts us in the frame of mind of disputes and disagreements.
The first stanza introduces another colour as well, the “grey” of the leaves of the “ash”. Ash in itself (the fire by-product rather than the tree) is grey, so we’ve whites and greys that set the atmosphere. The fallen leaves are evocative of a season of dying and decay. Interestingly, ash (the substance, not the tree) is what is produced when something is burned up. It’s also a symbol of penitence, like “Ash Wednesday”. It’s unusual, this choice of the ash-tree. Either it’s a factual autobiographical detail and there really were ash leaves on the edge of the pond, or Hardy has picked the word “ash” for a reason. It’s not that the tree in itself is particularly symbolic or meaningful (unlike Romeo’s sycamores) but that like Shakespeare and his sycamores, it’s a play on words, using “ash” to give us this grey association, this “neutral tone”. Plus, we say “ashes to ashes” when we talk about death, so perhaps he’s picking up on this connection.
Perhaps the other thing worth considering in stanza one is the way Hardy writes about the “starving sod”, and the alliteration of the s really focusing us on these words to wonder why he says that the ground is “starving”. Is it lacking in nourishment, in anything nourishing? I also notice in the first stanza the multiple use of “And”, which adds a monotony to it, along with the greyness and the winter.
As we move into the second stanza, it becomes more focused on the woman, rather than their relationship. Into this neutral-but-not-neutral landscape, we have a woman who looks at the poet as a “tedious riddle” – riddles sound kind of fun, like something to puzzle over, something to work out. When we talk about people being an enigma, it makes them sound kind of cool. But if you’re a tedious riddle, you’re monotonous and tiresome, boring. That with the “years ago” makes it seem like not only does she look at Hardy as if he was a tedious riddle, but one that got tedious years ago, like me with a ten-year-old sudoku. It’s just not appealing anymore. The word “rove” by the way, gives us the noun, “rover” or one who wanders. That’s why we call our dogs Rover and we have the Land Rover. It’s someone who has no kind of definite purpose in mind when they set out. Her eyes are the “roving” thing here though, which is curious. “Roving eyes” or “wandering eyes” always make me think of someone who’s looking at everybody else other than the person they’re with – someone who is no longer interested in what’s before them.
In fact, we have another positive word in stanza two as well: “played” to describe the words between them. This has connotations of something fun, as “riddles” do (and don’t forget, riddles are very much a word thing) It sounds like Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing with their “merry war” of words and verbal sparring, but this doesn’t sound fun, just melancholic and miserable, with the alliteration of “lost” and “love”. He doesn’t even know what was said anymore – just “some words”. He looks back on this very vivid scenario and now everything seems to be in a different light.
We see that very clearly in the next stanza, that she was smiling, but it was “the deadest thing”, as if she is going through the motions, her smile is not at all genuine. It’s ironic to have the superlative “deadest” put next to “alive enough” because “deadest” means that her smile couldn’t be more dead – it is as dead as it is possible to be. Yet it is “alive enough” which is strange. Only “alive enough” to have “strength to die”. The juxtaposition of dead and alive forces both of them into contrast, highlighting them both. Certainly it doesn’t sound as if she has any feelings of happiness when she looks on him. It certainly doesn’t strike me as a very “neutral” description of this moment.
The stanza continues with her “grin” – something that would sound positive and has positive connotations of happiness, but here seems loaded with something false and disingenuous, since it is a “grin of bitterness”. Again, nothing particularly neutral about the way he recalls her smile as insincere and bitter. These two images are then finished with the final line, a simile comparing her smile to an “ominous bird a-wing”. You can kind of imagine how a smile might look like a bird in flight – an interesting point of comparison for what Owen Sheers says about the two swans and how they use natural images to portray the emotions of the narrator and the person to whom the poem is directed. An “omen” gives us the word “ominous” and it means a sign of something bad that will happen, like if you break a mirror or see a magpie. It’s a warning of bad things that will happen. So when he sees in her smile a bird in flight, it’s not just any old bird, it’s a bird that is an omen for something bad that is yet to come. At this point in both the poem and the relationship, there is a feeling of things going wrong, but the couple are together. It is only by the fourth stanza that we realise time has passed. However, the poem is written retrospectively, and hindsight gives us 20/20 vision as they say. It’s easy to look back on past relationships and see where they went wrong, see the warning signs that the relationship was doomed: signs that we didn’t see at the time. That seems to be what is happening here.
The fourth stanza starts with a shift in time, “since then”. In this sense, “keen” means sharp, like a knife. Painful lessons, you might say. And the lesson that he’s learned? Love hurts.
Here’s a bit of 70s magic that really encapsulates Hardy’s feelings.
So…. not neutral at all then if he’s learned some lessons about love, that love deceives.
Interesting though. He says “love” deceives, not that she has deceived. Maybe it’s not that she has cheated on him or lied (although the smile on her mouth being “dead” and the “grin of bitterness” make me think that it was not just love deceiving Hardy, but the woman as well. If anything, there’s not a stick of evidence that she has been unfaithful, more that her love was just a fiction. The play on sounds of “wrings” and “wrongs” throws these words into focus. “Wrings” implies forceable twisting, or to extract in a forceable way. Honestly, I’m not sure what this bit means exactly – which makes me think he thought the sounds were good, but I think personally it’s more sound than sense. It sure sounds painful though. None of the “neutral tones” that we were promised. The final lines come back to the beginning again, making a pun on the word “wrings” and turning it to “rings”, suggesting to me that he is trapped in a circle of memories that he can’t escape – the image seems to be burnt into his memory of the woman, the sun, the trees and the leaves, like he remembers the exact point at which he realised something momentous. Was this then the moment that he realised the woman’s smile was “dead” and that her grin was something more than it seemed?
In summary, a pessimistic and negative poem that has an intensely dour lexical field despite promising neutrality. It’s a poem recalling a moment significant to the poet, a turning point perhaps from which he then went on to learn the bitter lessons of love’s deceit. It compares well with Winter Swans or When We Two Parted in terms of mood, tone and ideas, as well as the narrative voice and the particularly private nature of the poems.
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