Having cut himself free from Victorian poetic conventions and techniques, and concerning himself with the divided aims of a confused and often indifferent world, Thomas Hardy employs stronger and less poetic language in his works in order to convey man's capacity for experience and his unique response to it.
Hardy's poem "Neutral Tones," is, thus, very individualistic. Interestingly, there is an irony to the title as the word neutral has a connotation that differs greatly from the norm. For instance, the sun that is of a neutral, or having no hue or color, is really not bland at all. Rather, while it is "white," it is also "chidden of God." This description is anything but neutral, lending the poem a tone of despair and pessimism.
Structurally, there is a brevity and constraint to the lines which belie the underlying strong emotions. While the first two stanzas are simple in both diction and syntax with monotonous ending rhyme of abab, the many unaccented syllables weaken the lines, connoting spiritual exhaustion and disappointment. In addition, the mood of these two stanzas is mitigated by certain uses of alliteration and assonance. For instance, in the line, "And a few leaves lay on the starving sod," there is a certain torpor created. Both diction and syntax is simple, suggesting the difficulty of the speaker in reasoning and reflecting upon what has occurred.
The last two stanzas, however, are characterized by language that is more contorted as the syntax becomes irregular and the lines of the verse are enjambed. For instance, the third stanza has enjambed lines, paradoxical phrasing and a darkness of tone, all of which connote the perturbation of the speaker, whose dark memories have "crippled" his language. Here, then, is Hardy's use of language to convey man's unique experience.
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing....
Further, in the last stanza his language fails the speaker, and his distraught condition is evinced as incongruous images are intermixed with convoluted syntax,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with grayish leaves.
Ironically, Hardy did not publish this poem until 1898, the end of the century. For, his poem, too, reflects the effete quality of the poet, an exhaustion of all emotion.