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GCSE Poem analysis: Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy
April 27, 2017
What is it about?
Neutral Tones is a love poem, but focuses on the sadness of the end of a relationship rather than the joy of sharing love. It has a tone of tenderness mixed with deep regret and even bitterness, packing poetic devices and original imagery into the four short stanzas to make a powerfully emotional piece of poetry.
Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy
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.
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.
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...
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.
About the writer
Thomas Hardy was one of the most successful novelists of the nineteenth century, who wrote challenging and popular stories like Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, which explore the depth of emotions in human relationships within the setting of the natural landscape.
After 1900 he was better known for his poetry, which shared these major themes, but he had been writing verse all his life. This poem was written in 1867 when he was 27 and is likely to have been based on his own experience.
The title gives a clue that this poem is not full of exuberant emotion or traumatic heartbreak: the writer's tone is "neutral" and unemotional, as the two lovers' tone was likely to be during their discussion.
One of the ways Hardy achieves the "neutrality" of tone is by giving details to the setting in short, simple phrases that build up a picture without giving details or describing the person he addresses. For example, after the first line, which sets a very plain scene on a day that the poet expects his listener to recognise ("that day"), Hardy adds a detail like an afterthought, "And the sun was white", and then another, "And a few leaves lay on the starving sod".
He uses in-specific determiners like "a few" and "some" to show that he did not care enough to count, or remember the details - or perhaps the memory is too painful for him to try to remember the details? When he says "And some words played between us to and fro" it is as though his lover's eyes and their walk was the main event and their conversation was just an extra detail, the words of which he isn't even interested in. Yet these were the words that brought an end to their love, when they both discussed which of them had "lost the more by our love".
Natural and Colour Imagery
Another of the meanings of the title is "weak colours" and if we list the colours in the poem we find simple colours drawn from a very restricted palette: "white", "gray" and "grayish". Yes, these colours all match the setting of "that winter day", but Hardy is using his editor's prerogative to choose what to show his reader, ensuring that the natural world reflects the dull, deadened emotions of the heartbroken couple.
Hardy is rightly famed for his power of observation. The leaves of ash trees, when they fall, are indeed grey, not brown. Not only does this complete his rhyme scheme (and continue his colour scheme) but it proves that he is readier to remember the details of the surroundings than the content of the conversation.
The lover's smile is almost brought to life - but in the weakest possible way. It is described as "the deadest thing | Alive enough to have strength to die". Not only is this smile fake, but it seems to sap the life from the things around it. The "grin" that passes across her face might remind us of a skull's grin, in the context of the morbid talk, and the bird that he compares it to is the "ominous" bird that would have been read by a soothsayer to indicate someone's fate or doom.
The poet uses several words which have old-fashioned meanings. Hardy was very interested in the origins of words and the history of language. He could add overtones to his writing by using these meanings.
For example, in the fourth stanza he explains that since the walk by the pond, he has experienced "keen lessons that love deceives". "Keen" originally meant "sharp", so the poet is describing the "lessons" as "cutting" and implying that he now believes that love tricks the lover.
"Chidden" is the past participle of "to chide", meaning "to rebuke" or "to tell off". By using slightly archaic verb forms like this, Hardy can elevate the tone of his poem to sound more timeless and more serious.
Drawing God into the telling of this reminiscence does the same thing, and when he refers to God it is exclusively as a judge: God "chides" the sun and has "curst" the sun. The figure of a wrathful deity beyond the natural world reoccurs in Hardy's writing, draining hope from the situation.
The 'starving sod' is not only a powerfully alliterative noun phrase adding to the sense of cold through its sibilance; 'starving' now means "hungry" or "dying of hunger", but it used to mean "dying" of any cause and have much more finality than nowadays. There was no way back from "starving", just as there is no way back for this relationship.
In Hardy's re-telling, these events have been bleached of all their life. He only remembers a few details and they have been "shaped" by hindsight and his cynicism. This means that when he returns to his visual imagery at the end of the poem, it has only become harsher. Now the sun is "curst", not just "chidden".
The poem has four stanzas of four lines - quatrains. These are rhymed in an ABBA pattern, which had become associated with Tennyson's In Memoriam published in 1949. Hardy was certainly aware of the best-selling elegy, but he has adapted the form: instead of using four lines with four strong beats each (quadrameters), he shortens the fourth so it has only three strong beats (a trimeter).
The pattern of three iambic quadrameters followed by a trimeter was common in folk poetry and known as 'long metre' when rhymed ABAB or xAxA. However, this doesn't quite fit Hardy's metrical scheme either. All through his career he was a considerable innovator of metrical forms, often experimenting with new patterns and rhythms to see what effect they would have on his writing. In the case of Neutral Tones, the arch-rhyme scheme of ABBA borrows the sombreness of an elegy while the rhythmic pattern similar to long metre helps tell a story in simple language.
sibilance - use of 'wet' s and c consonants
elegy - a sad poem mourning the loss of a friend or lover (or sometimes the end of a relationship)
quadrameter trimeter - a line with three strong beats or stresses
iambic - rhythm which alternates weak then strong beats (like "About the town I love to go")
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For More GCSE poem analyses similar to Love's Philosophy: Love's Philosophy, Porphyria's Lover, Neutral Tones, Nettles, The Yellow Palm, My Last Duchess, and Medusa.