Written in 1867 by Thomas Hardy, the poem "Neutral Tones" describes the breakdown of a romantic relationship and its psychological effects in a dark and pessimistic way. In this summary, you will learn about the content, structure, language and ideas of this poem.
The speaker starts by recalling a specific winter day. The speaker and the poem's addressee, a former lover, were standing by a pond under a sun that appeared to have been punished by God due to its bleached whiteness. A few grey leaves had fallen from an ash tree and covered the dry ground.
The speaker observes that the ex-lover's eyes were bored as they looked at the speaker, as if they were looking at an old riddle. The two had a brief discussion about who had suffered the most as a result of the relationship.
The ex-lover's smile is then brought up and the speaker describes it as being almost dead, but with just enough life left to allow it to finally die now. The speaker compares the smile to a fearsome bird taking flight because it was bitter.
The speaker has come to realise that love is harmful and deceptive. This life lesson brings back memories of the other person's face, the sun, the pond, the trees and the crumpled leaves from that winter's day.
There are four quatrains in the poem. As quatrains are one of the most straightforward and easily recognised stanza forms, the poem's presentation on the page is somewhat unassuming. This is consistent with the "neutrality" that the title alludes to. This form's indifference fits the speaker's experience of the world, which is characterised by emotional trauma.
Although "Neutral Tones" is written in metre, the metre is a little awkward and erratic. The poem's stanzas generally follow a pattern where the first three lines of each stanza have four stressed syllables and feel like tetrameters. The final line of the stanza, which has three stresses, feels more like a trimeter than a conclusion to the pattern. However, this pattern is erratic throughout the entire poem, as is the metre—some feet are iambic and some are anapaests.
The poem's inconsistent metre has two significant effects. First of all, it engenders a sense of difficulty that is appropriate for the topic of a relationship's end. The rhythm of the poem also reflects the painful duality of the two people as they split apart and once again become separate beings by establishing two competing metres.
The four stanzas of "Neutral Tones" each have a consistent rhyme scheme that follows an ABBA pattern. Due to the way the outer two rhymes form a pair and enclose the inner two, this rhyme pattern is known as enclosed rhyme. On first glance, the rhyme scheme seems fairly innocent, adding to the impression of the poem's "neutrality" of form, which conceals the extent of the speaker's emotional suffering.
The Petrarchan sonnet shares the ABBA rhyme pattern. Given that the Petrarchan sonnet is closely associated with love poetry and "Neutral Tones" focuses on a breakup and the bitterness and deception of love in general, there may be an ironic "bitterness" to this.
Hardy uses language to reflect his scepticism toward love.
The title of the poem has a double meaning that is akin to a pun; the phrase "neutral tones" refers to both the former lovers' neutral, unemotional, and practical communication style and also to the poem's overall depiction of a grey, wintry landscape that lacks life and colour.
In order to enhance the poem's overall visual imagery, the poet uses similes.
‘the sun was white, as though chidden of God’.
As there is no chance of the relationship improving, this simile implies that the speaker is being cruelly tested and scrutinised. A cynical image of the white sun that is bright but cold and lifeless, as though the energy and passion of it have been swindled, is created.
Sibilance is a type of alliteration that uses 's' sounds to draw emphasis.
'Starving' is used to mean hungry or dying of hunger, but in the Victorian era it also meant death, so for contemporary readers, the word would have much more finality than it does to us now. The 'starving sod' is not just a profoundly alliterative noun phrase that adds to the sensation of cold through its sibilance.
The leaves are deteriorating, just like the relationship. They seem to have lost their colour and turned grey. The last stanza's leaves, which are likely from the same tree, are interesting because they appear "greyish," almost as if the speaker is standing where the past is more vivid than the present. Additionally, poets often use water as a symbol for life; in this case, the small, still body of water emphasises how the relationship isn't going anywhere.
The poem demonstrates how love carries with it the potential for loss. It also shows how a person's perspective on the world and the person they once loved can be completely changed by this loss. The poem illustrates how embracing love always entails running the risk of painful loss and estrangement through the example of the speaker and the speaker's lover, it even raises the possibility that all love may be inherently deceptive.
In trying times, religion can either bring comfort or add to the burden. Hardy battled with his religious convictions all of his life. He can be quite spiritual at times and express views that are almost atheist at other times. Clearly, the poem's "God" is against the union of these two lovers. The relationship is truly doomed because it is spiritually unapproved suggests a sense of finality. Given that wedlock unions were strongly discouraged in Victorian society, this may also reflect deeper attitudes about charity and marriage that were inherent in that society.
The poem immediately establishes itself as a memory by first going back to the initial incident and then illustrating how the speaker's mental state has remained affected by the emotional trauma of that event. The poem's use of the past tense establishes it as a description of events that happened in the past. Nearly all of the details in this memory relate to the senses. These vivid, if sad, descriptions show how the past endures even though it still exerts a negative influence on the speaker's thoughts.
'And the sun was white, as though chidden of God'
God has forsaken the relationship. Giving a finality to the pairs relationship. God is presented as an onlooker into the relationship and has decided the pair do not work.
'Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove / Over tedious riddles of years ago'
The ex-lover had grown bored of the speaker. They no longer care or want to give attention to the speaker. As the speaker is trying it becomes more evident how distant the ex-lover has become. The comparison to a tedious riddle suggests and overcomplication that the ex is not interested in.
Love and loss
'Since then, keen lessons that love deceives, / And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me'
The speaker views love as cruel and deceptive. The trauma of heartbreak has followed the speaker and they have become jaded. The memory of their heartbreak has changed them and memory has become their reality.
Question: What is 'Neutral Tones' about?
Answer: Written in 1867, the poem "Neutral Tones" describes the breakdown of a romantic relationship and its psychological effects in a dark and pessimistic way.
Question: What is the form of 'Neutral Tones'?
Answer: There are four quatrains in the poem. Because quatrains are one of the most straightforward and easily recognised stanza forms, the poem's presentation on the page is somewhat unassuming. This is consistent with the "neutrality" that the title alludes to. This form's indifference fits the speaker's experience of the world, which is characterised by emotional trauma.
Question: How does 'Neutral Tones' depict love?
Answer: The poem demonstrates how love carries with it the potential for loss. It also shows how a person's perspective on the world and the person they once loved can be completely changed by this loss.