The poem opens with a speaker standing by a pond during wintertime. The speaker then recalls experiencing a relationship breaking down, and the distance growing between them. The last part of the poem describes nature as dim and deathly.
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,Thomas Hardy 1867
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.
Thomas Hardy is known for his novels and poetry featuring the rural English countryside. Living from 1840 to 1928, he was alive during the First World War. Hardy was known for being sensitive and insecure and experienced two unhappy marriages. It was believed he could be depressed at times, which is the tone evident in his poem Neutral Tones.
When Hardy received a critique on one of his books, he stopped writing books and turned to poetry. This poem was one of the last that Hardy wrote before he stopped writing poetry, and his tone of misery is perhaps reflected in this piece.
The speaker appears very upset in the poem, using imagery of death to describe the breakdown of their relationship. In the opening of the poem, straightforward lexis is used to tell readers of the location of the two people:
“We stood by a pond that winter day”
The idea of winter perhaps foreshadows the coldness the speaker feels, and the idea that the couple just “stood” there emphasises the lack of emotion by this point, or that they were “frozen” and awkward. The use of the past tense “stood” also indicates that the speaker of the poem is looking back on the events.
Hardy uses a lack of colour in the description within the poem to represent the speaker’s feelings of numbness: “the sun was white” and the fallen leaves had become “grey”. These colour adjectives suggest a bleakness and link to the title being “Neutral Tones”. Even in the first stanza, nature seems ‘dead’ with leaves lying on the “starving sod”, where the sibilance (repeated soft ‘s’ sounds) creates a hushed or eerie effect.
The pronoun usage becomes more direct in the opening of the second stanza, which Hardy opens with:
“Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove…”
The verb “rove” indicates jealousy, meaning eyes that wander, and the speaker follows this with the line:
“Over tedious riddles of years ago”
This perhaps tells us that there has been an ongoing distance and divide between the two lovers. The poem appears sincere in its account when it says that the “words played between” them just vanished as the love disappeared.
The third stanza uses personification, describing the lover’s mouth as:
“was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die”
The mouth symbolises intimacy and language, yet here Hardy uses the superlative adjective “deadest” to show how everything shut down – possibly the communication between the couple completely stopped, too. He also uses personification when writing “a grin of bitterness” and pairs this with the simile “Like an ominous bird a-wing” suggesting separation and flight. The adjective “ominous” here implies a sense of the unknown, supported by this stanza’s use of ellipsis at the end.
In the fourth and final stanza, “wrings with wrong” implies difficulty – it is phonetically difficult to pronounce, expressing the speaker’s feelings. The speaker also sounds unable to completely let the relationship go when he says:
“have shaped to me
The poem closes with the imagery of the pond again “a pond edged with greyish leaves concluding with the melancholy message.
The poem contains a cyclical structure: the opening uses the image of a grey pond and closes with the same image. In addition to this, the poem starts with “grey” leaves and ends with “greyish” leaves implying nothing has changed. The speaker is stuck in a stagnant state, mourning the loss of the relationship. Perhaps the cyclical nature of the poem indicates that the speaker is trying to move forward but cannot do so.
Allusions to God and religion are also repeated – once in the first stanza “as though chidden of God” and once in the final stanza “and the God curst sun”. This adds a judgemental and external force to the poem here; the speaker has no control over the relationship’s outcomes.
The poem also uses enjambment (where lines follow into one another) and this is often used to suggest a freer flow or stream of consciousness. For example:
“have shaped to me
These lines use enjambment to portray a sudden memory, or an ability to stop thinking about the person even after things have come to an end.
The poem consists of quatrains (stanzas of four lines), which are written in tetrameter, meaning each line typically has four metrical feet or beats, giving the poem a typically fast pace. However, there is a jarring effect when lines are slowed down through the use of enjambment, which reminds the reader that this poem is about feeling deeply unsettled, and dysfunctional.
Whilst there is an ABBA rhyme scheme creating a rhythmic pattern to the poem, here it serves to support the speaker perhaps revisiting an idea again and again; stuck in a cycle.