Thomas Hardy’s classic poem ‘Neutral Tones’ – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Neutral Tones’ was written when Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a young man (in 1867) but not published until 1898, when his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, appeared. Much of Hardy’s vast poetic output has not had much critical attention or analysis; there is a sense that many of the poems ‘speak for themselves’, that their meaning is self-evident. But ‘Neutral Tones’, being among his most perennially popular poems, deserves a few words by way of analysis and close reading.
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.
‘Neutral Tones’: a quintessential Hardy poem this, in so many ways. It’s a bleak take on love and a relationship gone sour, yet – as the title makes clear – the poem tries to depict the scene in a neutral way, describing things as they were. This neutrality is actually bitterly sardonic: the smile on the woman’s mouth is dead (‘the deadest thing’) yet alive (‘Alive enough’) but only, it seems, in order for it to die (‘to have strength to die’); the woman’s ‘smile’ is also a ‘grin of bitterness’, more a rictus or snarl than a smile of joy. Note also how the word ‘wept’ threatens to come in between ‘bitterness’ and ‘swept’: the woman is ostensibly smiling but, it would seem, almost weeping on the inside. This relationship, we gather, is doomed. Hardy’s poetry repays such close analysis, even though it is often viewed as self-evidently clear and straightforward in expression.
The wordplay of ‘Neutral Tones’ is sometimes explicit: such as the pun on ‘ash’ in the first stanza – the ash-tree, but the ‘gray’ of the leaves suggesting the ashes of a burnt-out fire (conjuring up the flames of a love or passion that has now passed). Sometimes it is of a subtler kind, such as the way the individual letters of ‘rove’ at the end of the first line of the second stanza rearrange themselves into the word ‘Over’ at the head of the next line: our eyes rove over the very words of the poem, much as the woman’s eyes searched the man, trying to understand him. We, too, are put in the position of trying to understand the scene, and the relationship between the two figures, the speaker and the addressee. The twisting of ‘wrings’ into ‘wrong’ in the second line of the final stanza is utterly appropriate, not only because the etymology of the word ‘wrong’ is ‘wrung’ or twisted (something you wring, or twist, in your hands, so that it has literally gone wrong) but also because it enacts the idea of wringing out the last vestiges of the relationship between the man and the woman, like a damp cloth being wrung out.
Behind ‘Neutral Tones’ lurks the idea of a godless universe, something never far away in Thomas Hardy’s poetry (or, indeed, in his novels). See, for instance, Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ and our analysis of its bleak view of a world in which hope is always tinged by pessimism, or ‘unhope’. You might also enjoy Hardy’s ‘The Self-Unseeing’. To go in search of more of Hardy’s poetry, we recommend The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (Wordsworth Poetry Library), which is excellent value for money and contains nearly 1,000 pages of Hardy’s poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.