I’ve been getting a lot of suggestions about poems and poets to feature in this blog. Thank you all. I’ve discovered some great poetry and rediscovered some that I had failed to appreciate earlier.
“Neutral Tones” is definitely well crafted, but is it ever a sad and depressing poem!
Hardy is writing about a remembered meeting of lovers that spelled the imminent end of their relationship. As the couple stands by a pond in winter, it becomes increasingly certain that the love is dead. It is as if the whole world, the pond, the trees, the fallen leaves, and even the sun confirm that it’s over.
The leaves “had fallen from an ash, and were grey.”
The woman looks at the writer of the poem, but he feels her eyes on him are “as eyes that rove over tedious riddles of years ago.
Even the woman’s smile is described as “the deadest thing,” and compared to an “ominous bird a-wing” passing by.
All pretty grim, dismal stuff. No color. No warmth. No sign of hope, and no relief.
The only comfort — and it is cold comfort — is that the man has gained the knowledge that “loves deceives.”
Hardy wrote “Neutral Tones” in 1867, when he was 27. One theory is that this poem was written about his cousin, Tryphena Sparks, with whom he had a tempestuous love affair. Not long afterwards, he fell in love with Emma Gifford, whom he later married.
Others have written extensively about how Hardy uses the poet’s craft to establish the heartbreaking atmosphere of the poem. So I won’t go into detail here.
But Hardy knows what he is doing and uses language, meter and metaphor to create an aching sense of loneliness and despair.