Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy

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Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy (1867)

Neutral Tones
BY THOMAS HARDY
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.

Here is how I would want you to do an analysis of this poem:

The poem Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy is one of his earlier poems that was included in the collection Wessex Poems and other Verses. The title of the collection immediately alerts the reader to the possibility that the landscape that appears in Neutral Tones will be that of countryside associated with Wessex. The title of the poem establishes the notion of impartiality and of musicality of poetic voice. However there is also the idea of colour in contained in the word tones. The title seems to play on the idea of an impartial and distanced poetic voice and of colour that lacks brightness. In my reading of this poem, I plan to explore the manner in which the poetic voice neutrally depicts the tragedy of love. I shall do this through a close examination of the use of language and its devices in order to show how the neutral shades of the title are reproduced within the poem.

In the first stanza the writer describes the landscape in winter. This season indicates loneliness and death. In scene is photographic, held in the stillness of time past caught in memory. Here he recalls how:

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 grey.

The surrounding landscape is colourless, even the sun is “white” and the ground filled with leaves that are grey. The word “ash” plays on the tree and the idea of the ashes of a fire. The notion of something dead, lacking in warmth, disintegrated and lacking in colour is enhanced. The use of the commas after winter day and white ensures that the scene is slowed down and everything is defined in careful detail. The commas in the first two lines ensure that the emphasis is placed on the white sun which has been “chidden of God”. The sun itself is cursed and rebuked, its colour and warmth removed. The homophonic play on the word “sun” adds a religious overtone, God seems to have rebuked his “son” for some misdemeanor and removed the light from the world.

The alliteration of “starving sod” adds a strange lit to the image of death. Even the earth and grass are lack sustenance and the expression “under the sod” springs to mind. There are only a few leaves on the ground and they too are lifeless and leaden. The mention of the ash tree which in mythology is the “tree of life” furthers the religious imagery in this stanza, but it could also be related to Ash Wednesday the beginning of the period of Lent where ashes are placed on the forehead as a sign of repentance and mourning.The melancholy of the landscape fills the remembrances of the poet revealing his own sense of sadness at something lost but still painfully contained within himself. A memory that returns again and again to trouble him.

( this is how I want an analysis performed on a poem) You unpick the stanza to discuss the theme that you are trying to explore). This is how it is accomplished.

In the second stanza we move from the description of the surrounding landscape, to that of the human figures:

Your eyes...
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