Neutral Tones is poem by Thomas Hardy, one of the most famous novelists and poets of the Victorian era whose work was often characterised by the melancholy that pervaded it. The themes of disappointment in love and the pain that comes with loss, especially the loss of love can be found in most of his writings. Written in 1867 but published much later in 1898 as a part of his collection of poems “Wessex Poems and Other Verses”, the poem “Neutral Tones” is one of his well-known and much appreciated poems on the bitterness that follows the end of a relationship. An unconventional love poem, it deals not with the joy and happiness commonly associated with the feeling of love, but rather the heartbreak and feelings of loss that one experiences as romance starts to fade away, disappearing like it had never existed.
Neutral Tones | Summary
The poem opens with the speaker recounting a memory of he and someone, later revealed to be his beloved, standing near a pond on a cold winter day. The atmosphere was bleak and sombre; even the sun failed to exude any warmth and joy, as if God had reprimanded it for committing some folly. Its fire, usually burning bright, seemed to have died making him appear absolutely white, devoid of all its passionate, flaming hues. Even the trees surrounding them echoed the barrenness and gloom that impregnated the whole surroundings. The parched ground, most likely due to the harsh weather, was strewn with a few fallen leaves, probably from the ash tree. The leaves too, like the rest of the surroundings, were sans all colour, appearing gray and withered.
After describing the setting in the first stanza, the speaker then begins to talk about his beloved who was with him that day. He says that she looked at him with dispassionate eyes, almost as if she was looking at some dull and tiresome mystery of the past. Maybe she no longer found him interesting or maybe she was not able to figure out his feelings regarding her- whatever it may be, she seems to have given up on their love, tired of figuring out where things were headed between them. Both of them exchanged some words but the conversation, just like their relationship, no longer held much significance. It reeked of morbidity and failure, serving as an indication of not much being left in their love. Probably the conversation was more of an argument as to who among the two of them was to be blamed for their lost love. Or maybe they talked about who was more hurt by their relationship falling apart. It could also be that the more they talked, the more they realised that the love they shared at some point, has ceased to exist, growing fainter with every word they spoke.
The speaker further comments that through all this, a small smile played on her mouth which seemed to cause the poet excruciating pain, filling his heart with bitter resentment. This smile that hovered on her face was not one that filled his heart with joy. Rather, it was dispassionate, resonating with her feelings for him. The beloved’s smile was like that of a man who does not have much life left in him; having only enough which would allow him to die. Similarly, most of the love between them had evaporated, leaving behind only as much as was necessary for them to bring their relationship to its death. Such was the bitterness that was reflected in her smile on the day which marked the end of their love. To the speaker, the smile appeared as sinister as a menacing bird who is just about to take flight. The smile seemed to foretell the dejection and despair that awaited the speaker as he lost his beloved.
Since that day, having experienced fully the pain and sufferings brought upon by a heartbreak, the speaker developed a cynical attitude towards love and relationships. The memory of the day when he lost the one whom he loved the most is firmly etched in his mind, having completely altered his perception of the world. It made him realise the deceptive nature of love and the agony it is capable of afflicting upon one’s heart. The image of the lady’s face, the “white” sun, the ash tree with its decaying leaves and the pond as it appeared on that cold morning serves as a reminder to him of the immense agony and inner turmoil caused to him by this experience. The memory of that day is tinged with both bitterness and regret, filling the speaker’s heart with melancholy and anguish as and when it resurfaces.
Neutral Tones | Analysis
The poem is composed in four quatrains and follows the rhyme scheme ABBA. While the language is simple and to the point, the tone displays the pessimism that characterises Hardy’s works.
The imagery used in Neutral Tones is quite detailed and symbolic of the mood of the speaker. Through his skilful use of words, Hardy manages to convey the entire range of emotions that the speaker had undergone, in very limited lines. It almost seems like we are present at the scene being described and the reader can feel the pain and anguish of the speaker. Alliteration has been used in the last stanza as is seen in “wrings with wrong”. Similes and metaphors have also been used to enhance the description. Paradox can be seen in the comparison of the lady’s grin with a dead person.
Overall, the poem, as the title indicates, is quite neutral in its expression and the poet refrains from blaming anyone for the breakup, aiming to just narrate the incident. However, the poem does show a tinge of regret and bitterness at the indifference of the beloved towards the end. The poet seems to highlight the dark reality that lay beneath the Victorian optimism and bring forth the scepticism and disenchantment that was present among people during the time. It is an expression of Hardy’s cynicism towards love and loss of faith in the world and is a great example of the pessimism and melancholy that marked his style.