Themes and Meanings

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One of Hardy’s earliest poems, “Neutral Tones” was written in 1867 but not published until 1898. A prolific fiction writer, Hardy did not start publishing his poems until he was fifty-eight years old and had finished his career as a novelist. Although this poem was written in the middle of the Victorian era (1837-1901), it reflects the fin de siècle consciousness of its publication date. Fin de siècle works often evoke feelings of exhaustion and disillusionment.

Hardy’s Victorian sensibility was forced reluctantly into the modern world. He was nostalgic for the security and optimism of the Victorian era, but he stoically and uncompromisingly faced the harsh realities of modernity. This often led to pessimistic works. His career straddles the Victorian and modern periods. Scholars often treat his novels Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895) and his poetry as modern and his earlier novels as Victorian. In spite of its traditional verse, “Neutral Tones” has many qualities that would come to be seen as modern.

One of the hallmarks of modern literature is irony. The disparity between what things seem to be or what things pretend to be and what they really are resonates with the modern consciousness. Many of Hardy’s poems are ironic; he even has a volume of poems called Satires of Circumstance. The title of this poem, “Neutral Tones,” is ironic. The colors of the landscape are “neutral,” but the mood (or “tone”) these colors create is dismal, not neutral. The lover’s features, such as her eyes and her smile, may seem neutral or indifferent, but they are in actuality bitter and hurtful.

The poem’s attention to the mundane details of a seemingly trivial moment is also modern. The scale, scope, and ambitions of modern poetry are considerably reduced; its typical mode is understatement. Romantic poets soared to reveal the wonders of the imagination and aspired to be the “legislators of the world.” Victorian poetry preached the truths of science, philosophy, religion, and politics unabashedly. Modern poets, who had lost confidence in their own authority and also the authority of institutions, focused much more narrowly. Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being,” James Joyce’s “epiphanies,” and Ezra Pound’s Imagism all result from this circumscribed scope. The attention to a particular moment also grows out of realism’s emphasis on the everyday. Realism held that seemingly unimportant people could be important, and seemingly insignificant details or moments could hold significance.

In “Neutral Tones” the speaker’s imaginative failure comments on a failure of the modern imagination in general. Hardy’s poems frequently ask whether or not the circumstances of modernity can foster a vital imagination. The speaker’s mention of “an ominous bird a-wing” alludes to and contrasts with the many exultant birds in Romantic poetry, especially the nightingales. In nineteenth century British Romantic poetry, nightingales stimulate the imaginations of their eloquent, inspired speakers.

“Neutral Tones” has the form of a conversation poem, or greater Romantic lyric, which was commonly adopted by Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. These poems begin in a particular landscape, soar to an imaginative vision, and then return to reflect upon the landscape and vision that have transformed the speaker. This poem recalls this form, except that the speaker fails to have an imaginative vision and is not transformed. Hardy seems to imply that the modern world stymies the spirits of its poets and its people.

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