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An Analysis of the Poem '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 solved 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.
The sense created by this poem's first stanza seems to be that, even in the moment about the be described, the poet was being willfully selective about what details of the world around him that he focused on - and, in what light he saw them. It creates a strong sense that Hardy was attempting to impose himself, and what he had felt in that moment, on the world around him.
There is the harsh glare of sun that seems to shine to brightly for Hardy's tastes, for a start - one that seems to burn with an anger of its own, as though it had been "chidden" (rebuked, or scolded) by God, himself. Then, there is the starving sod and the dying leaves - a common enough image in the natural world, especially in winter, but one which Hardy focuses on in order to suggest a feeling of desolation.
This first stanza represents a very deliberate, and calculated, use of 'poetic license', essentially. It is unlikely, after all, that this was all there was to see by that particular pond on that particular winter's day - but, it was obviously all that Hardy wanted us to see.
From there, we move into the poem's true purpose. For the next two stanzas we are, essentially, observing what appears to be the aftermath of a relationhip's end through Hardy's eyes. This unnamed woman, we are told, observed Hardy and saw a "tedious riddles solved years ago". Her smile was, also, something that she was required to force - something "alive with just enough strength to die". These are unflattering images, certainly - but, much like with Hardy's fixation on the gloomier details of his surroundings in the first stanza, it is possible that he was simply imposing his own thoughts on her. He imagined her as cold, and almost cruel, in her contempt for him because, much like with the harsh sun and the dead leaves, the image of her cruelty fit his mood.
The final stanza, with its opening of "since then", clearly indicates that some time has passed, for Hardy, between that meeting by a pond on a winter's day and the actual writing of this poem - and that, clearly, the emotional pain that this moment had caused him was something he could not easily overcome.
The poem, itself, seems to have become an act of painful reflection for Hardy, as he remembered a romantic rejection - and, the lessons he took from that moment, "that love deceives", were not positive ones. Once more, as the poem comes to a close, we have Hardy projecting the sense of bitter rejection that he felt onto what he observed - forming a direct link between the harsh sun, the dead leaves, and the cold and indifferent expression on the young woman's face.
Yet, in linking these images in this way, it is possible to see an element of self-deception in the poem. After all, the sun shining so brightly above him would seem to indicate that the sky, itself, is clear - an image that is typically considered to be beautiful. And, leaves falling from a tree's branches are simply a part of the natural world. But, in both cases, Hardy imposes a negative connotation to what had, in truth, been a 'neutral tone'. It seems entirely possible, therefore, that he was also doing the same with what he had imagined seeing in the young woman's face.
The collected poems of Thomas Hardy, available from Amazon
© 2015 Dallas Matier