A Regret Over the Failure of Love
This poem depicts the passing away of the love which the poet and his beloved had at one time felt for each other. The memory of a love, which has come to an end, is always bitter but it has its sweetness also.
In this poem, it is the bitter-sweet of love that finds expression. The mood of the poet here is one of despair, which is a characteristic of most poems by Hardy. The tone of the poem is markedly elegiac. The poem is a kind of lament over a love that has died.
A Past Experience, Recalled With Deep Feeling
Neutral Tones is a retrospective and reminiscent poem in which an experience of the past has been depicted with great feeling. In the opening stanza, the desolation of a wintry day has been depicted most effectively in a few lines only.
The sun was dim on that day, a few leaves lay on the dry turf, and these leaves had fallen from the nearby ash tree. The leaves were gray. The reason for the dimness of the sunlight, according to the poet’s fancy, was that the sun had been scolded by God for some reason or the other.
Next, the poet recalls the expression in the beloved’s eyes as she gazed at him. She looked at him as if she were meditating upon the riddles which had come between them and which they had not been able to solve.
Even the words spoken by them to each other seemed to be meaningless of bitterness: and its fading away could be compared to an ominous bird flying away In the final stanza the poet comes to the conclusion that love can deceive a man and on cause him immense pain.
The Psychological Interest of the Poem
We have in Neutral tones a poem with considerable psychological interest. It is difficult to understand and explore the mind of a woman Hardy seems to be saying as he recalls that experience of the past.
And of course, the poem is a warning to all future lovers. Love deceives, and “wrings with wrong”. How true is this conclusion reached by the poet?
Condensed Structure; Careful Choice of Words
Structural of the poem is compact and close-knit. There is a concentration of thought and feeling in the poem. There is no waste of words here. Hardy’s poetic style was characterized by an extraordinary economy of words.
Besides, he always chose the most appropriate words to express his meaning. “Eyes that rove”, “the deadest thing;” “wrings with wrong”; “God-curst sun”….. are examples of Hardy’s care in the choice of words and in phrase-making.
The conceit, “as though chidden of God”, and the simile “like an ominous bird a-wing” are particularly noteworthy in connection with Hardy’s poetic style. As for the sound of words, we cannot say that Neutral Tones is a melodious poem; but its words certainly do not jar upon our ears. Even musically, then, the poem is “neutral”.
The Views of Critics About This Poem As already pointed out, Neutral Tones is one of Hardy’s earliest poems and, according to a critic, it is one that gives us clear indications of Hardy’s mature strength.
This early poem, says our critic, is technically a great success. Indeed, the technique here has a mark of mastery. There is a perfect economy of statement in this poem.
producing the impression that the words here are saying only what the poet wants them to say, neither less nor more. According to another critic, this early love-lyric has most of the qualities we find in Hardy’s later lyrics.
We find here the simple, almost colloquially plain-spoken diction, the flicks of alliteration which give emphasis rather than adornment, and indifference to bright coloring in the description. And in sum there is a kind of acrid clarity in both thought and style.
We delect here precisely the same flavor in a much later lyric. The Darkling Thrush. Yet another critic expresses the view that this poem (Neutral Tones) has the effect of etching in steel by a man trained in drawing the ruins of old churches, as Hardy was”.
Here Hardy uses a natural background to support the mood of the poem, as he most often does. The relationship between the lovers is reinforced by the somber natural scene which is depicted here as the background of that relationship.
The ash tree is generally a symbol of happiness but the happiness of love has passed away, the few remaining leaves of the ash tree have turned gray, and even these lie on the ground.