What is the most significant symbol in the poem "Neutral Tones" by Thomas Hardy? and why?

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gpane | College Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Arguably the most important symbol in this poem is that of the pond. The pond also forms the setting where the two former lovers meet on a winter’s day and its dull dankness colours the entire poem. The poem is shot through with shades of grey and also includes a rather chilling reference to a ‘white’ sun, a sun which appears forsaken, or ‘chidden by God’. Overall the feeling is one of blank hopelessness – a feeling projected in many other of Hardy’s writings – which is reinforced by the dull grey tints described in the poem. The dark still pond symbolizes the feeling of stagnation in the couple’s relationship, which lies at the very heart of the poem. Therefore it is a most significant symbol.

The pond also symbolizes how, despite an outer appearance of calm, there might be deeper emotions stirring underneath the unmoving surface. This certainly seems true of the speaker and his one-time lover. Although it seems that the two of them meet and address each other quite civilly and composedly, and the whole tone of the poem is quite muted and melancholic, there is undoubtedly the sense of a deeper, more intense anguish at work throughout. This sense of understatement, coupled with skillful use of natural imagery, is what makes the poem so effective and gives it a sense of genuine pathos. It remains quite taut overall, it does not become extravagantly sentimental as it might have done.  All of love’s pains and deceptions are summed up for the speaker in this brief, but quietly despairing scene by the pond:

Your face, and the God curst sun, and a tree,

And a pond edged with greyish leaves.

However, he and his one-time love no longer share their deeper passions and emotions; all that is over. All that is left is this meeting by a dull winter pond, with a brief exchange of words and meaningless smiles.

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