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The theme of the poem "Neutral Tones" is stated in lines 13-14, namely, "that love deceives, / And wrings with wrong." The persona in the poem has learned a lesson about love from a failed relationship. That lesson, which becomes the universal truth--or theme--espoused by the poem, is that love brings pain and cannot be trusted. Interestingly, rather than qualify the statement as an outcome of some relationships, the speaker paints with a broad and pessimistic brush, extrapolating from one broken relationship that love itself is destined to turn sour, a viewpoint that would make it hard to enter into another relationship in the future. Since a work can have more than one theme, one might broaden this theme beyond the speaker of the poem to say that a person who has experienced a difficult break-up of a romance may become disillusioned toward love and allow that event to taint his or her future outlook toward dating and marriage.
In the poem, the writer describes the death of a romantic relationship and compares it to the lifeless setting of a winter's day near a pond. The speaker met his lover at the pond--a cold and barren scene with gray fallen leaves lying "on the starving sod." The frigid setting matches the iciness with which the woman treats him. Her eyes seem to be asking what she had ever seen in him--rejecting not just his current person, but even the past times they have spent together. Although she smiled at him, her smile "was the deadest thing / Alive enough to have strength to die." And, indeed, whatever life there was in her smile soon gave way to bitterness. The writer wants to draw a parallel between the lifeless winter setting and a romantic relationship that, though it had once blossomed, is now devoid of any vibrancy and is as dead as a fallen gray leaf.
The primary subject of the poem is pain experienced at the ending of a love affair. The feelings of bitterness and loss are viewed retrospectively, connected with a remembered meeting 'by a pond, that winter day.' Both the speaker and the female he addresses are accusatory; both feel they have 'lost the more by [their] love.' In the final stanza, the speaker shifts perspective from the memory, and reflects on the bitter lesson that he has taken from it: 'keen lessons that love deceives.'
Part of the power of the poem derives from the interaction between the characters and the setting. The bleakness and desolation of the landscape echoes the death of their love. There are ironies too, however: the pastel shades suggested by 'neutral tones' are deceptive, since the emotions they reflect are anything but neutral.
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