Neutral Tones: Thomas Hardy

Hardy produced some of literature’s finest elegiac poems upon his wife’s death. His relationship with Emma, though, while she was living had been fraught with tension. This poem, even with this biographical detail, conveys a sense of a dead relationship. Note the images he repeats and the antitheses he sets up between words of opposite meaning.

Neutral Tones

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.

Hardy’s poetry often excludes the reader with private details such as ‘the original air-blue gown’ in The Voice and the ‘tedious riddles of years ago’ in this poem. This privacy makes the poem feel intimate; it has a similar effect to reading Jane Austen – as though you are overhearing a secret conversation.
The passion of love, traditionally represented by the metaphor of fire, has destroyed the landscape into a wasteland of ash. Even the ‘white’ sun has been drained of colour. They images all convey a sense of a dead relationship. The succinct repetition of these same images in the last stanza creates a neat frame with the beginning to conclude the poem.

chidden, scolded
sod, a lump of soil
curst, archaic spelling of cursed

See also: A Broken Appointment, Thomas Hardy