An Analysis of “Neutral Tones”

An analysis of the poem by Thomas Hardy:

“Neutral Tones” Poetry Analysis

All those who come to know love are bound to feel its sting. Love and pain are so tightly wound that in effect they are nearly the same: the only shift is in how one may feel at a given moment in time. First and foremost, the poem “Neutral Tones” by Thomas Hardy is a demonstration of such change, as it depicts the moment that a joyful young love has finally ceased to exist. The poem illustrates the transition through a gradual transformation of language and punctual descriptions of images that will rest in the poet’s mind forever. The careful diction and figurative language of “Neutral Tones” convey that, for better or for worse, love is innately tied to loss and pain.

The poem begins quite simply, pulling from the simplicity of a poignant memory that occupies the speaker’s mind. The first stanza has the most simplistic and accessible language of the entire poem, and discusses light, concrete topics: the setting, comprised of a pond, a winter sun, and leaves that “had fallen from an ash, and were gray” (Hardy line 4). However, as innocent as the initial image may seem, the undertones are unsettling, indicating that there is something wrong, that the situation is not quite what it is meant to be. The sun is typically assumed to be warm and cheerful, indicative of fair weather and bright memories, but the sun at this moment is “white, as though chidden of God” (Hardy line 2). White is a much cooler color than the sun’s typical gold, and resembles the sickly paleness of a deadman’s skin. Near the end of this line, consonance with the letter “d” draws attention to the words “chidden of God,” indicating that the unsettling emotions come from a higher power who cannot be appealed to for help. In other words, there is no way to avoid the truth that is about to be unveiled. Also key is the winter setting of the poem: winter is a season of apparent death, or at least a lack of life, as  the trees lack their leaves and the animals have withdrawn into hibernation. The language of the poem highlights this grave quality of the season, using alliteration to emphasize the “starving sod,” and noting how the decaying leaves “had fallen from an ash, and were gray” (Hardy lines 3-4). The color gray indicates just how far from life the leaves have fallen; there is no potential of bringing them back.

Reminiscent of the startlingly cold image of the sun, the second stanza depicts a contrast between hopeful expectations and the grave, undeniable reality. Hardy recalls how his partner’s eyes “were as eyes that rove / Over tedious riddles of years ago” (Hardy lines 5-6). Consonance with the letter “d” pulls particular attention to “tedious riddles,” descriptive of something that may have been interesting at one time, but has long since lost the excitement and appeal, fading into the tiring, exhausted, empty present sentiment. Also of note, the riddles were “of years ago,” placing a great distance between the present and the time that interest was lively and sincere. Still, the speaker aims to continue his relationship, and writes “some words played between us to and fro,” indicating a friendly, light conversation that lacks its prior depth and sincerity (Hardy line 7). To dive beneath the surface would be to unearth the sullen truth that love is dead, so the conversation remains superficial. At the end of the second stanza, Hardy provides the first confession on the source of the sullen tone: he articulates how the words “lost the more by our love” (Hardy line 8). Although neither of the couple has outwardly admitted this to the other, the fading quality of conversation is indicative that the warm feelings have left them.

The contrasts continue to occur in the third stanza, as Hardy contrasts the assumed happiness of a smile with the pain of loss, writing “The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing” (Hardy line 9). The simplicity of the phrase “deadest thing” indicates the simple starkness of this fact: it is clear and present and undeniable, however much the speaker may wish otherwise. This contrast is repeated with the mention of a “grin of bitterness,” a phrase called to attention by the use of assonance with the letter “i” (Hardy line 11). Hardy conveys that this particular grin occurs at the very end of what once was, and serves as a dark omen for the ultimatum, the final death of love. He makes this clear by noting that the smile was “Alive enough to have strength to die,” indicating nearness to the end, and by comparing the briefly-glimpsed grin to “an ominous bird a-wing” (Hardy line 12). The word “ominous” in itself suggests foreshadowing, as it typically describes something dark and evil that may bring unwanted events.

The start of the fourth stanza is an abrupt shift from the previous three, as the speaker ceases discussion of his memory of the moment and begins to discuss his personal analysis of the memory. The speaker emphasizes his supposed moral with heavy use of sound devices: he has learned “keen lessons that love deceives / And wrings with wrong” (Hardy lines 13-14). The initial phrase emphasized by assonance with the long “e” sound and consonance with the “s” sound, and the message that love “wrings with wrong” is highlighted with repeat sounds of “wr” and “ng,” examples of alliteration and consonance. The negativity of this statement implies an ongoing bitterness from the above-described event, indicating that his perception of love is forever changed by his painful feelings of loss. In the following lines, the speaker makes clear how pungently the memory of the moment sticks in his mind, repeating words that appeared earlier in the poem: “Your face, and the God curst sun, and a tree / And a pond edge with grayish leaves” (Hardy lines 15-16). In fact, the tone has become more negative than when these images were first introduced: the sun has changed from being simply “chidden of God” to being “the God curst sun” (Hardy lines 2,15). The end of the poem, though redundant of the beginning, strikes the audience in an entirely new way: much sharper, and much more bitter.

The frequent ties between beginning and end are essential to the overall meaning of the poem, the rhyme scheme is abba cddc effe ghhg, so that the end of each stanza rhymes with the beginning of each stanza, thereby tying them together. Also, as previously stated, the final stanza presents the same image as the first stanza, just described using a different tone. This trend is more than just stylistic: the entire narrative of the poem contrasts beginnings with ends, describing how a love that began warmly has ended on a cold winter’s day. Since then, the speaker still traces his current pessimism back to the beginning, when that feeling first began: the same moment that the feeling of love had ended. In this way, the beginning and end become so closely tied as to merge — the memories of the love are one with the memories of love’s end; today’s bitterness is one with the moment that caused it. As the speaker notes that “love deceives,” he implies that, from the beginning, the love was nothing but a trick, meant to meet the harsh end (Hardy line 13). Does this mean, then, that love is a fruitless pursuit if what one desires is happiness?

The fact in life, perhaps surprisingly, is quite the opposite. Throughout the poem, Hardy makes clear that he has experienced a myriad of emotion, ranging from love to heartbreak, and that he has interpreted a lesson as a result. This could be viewed as suffering, with negative diction such as “ominous” and “curst,” but permanent suffering is not necessarily the product of heartbreak. Hardy states his lesson as universal: “love deceives,” with no stated exceptions (Hardy line 13). The statement implies that this is a fact of life. In order to discover this fact, the speaker had to endure the experience of love and loss, so perhaps, the emotions he felt allowed him to feel alive. For all the references to death in the poem, some people who have come in close contact with death admit that they have never felt more alive than at that moment. Furthermore, although the speaker is bitter for the ending of his love, he does not state any regret for setting out on the endeavor — he leaves space for the audience to guess that some good may have come of it. Life is a journey of discovery through taking chances, and sometimes, the emotional roller coaster is an integral part of that.

By the end of the poem, there is absolutely no doubt that love is innately tied to suffering, and no one who has been in love would disagree. The speaker was changed by his experience; he is no longer the naive lover of the past, but rather, recognizes that perfect love does not exist. A happily ever after is not a guarantee, and by no means is love ever easy. But as for being a worthwhile pursuit — the poet makes no effort to deny this fact. Love and emotions are the root of experiencing life, and the human heart is born to feel them.

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