The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Thomas Hardy’s poem “Neutral Tones” is a dramatic monologue consisting of four tetrameter quatrains. The speaker addresses an estranged lover and reminisces about a foreseen moment in their past, which anticipated the demise of their relationship. The first three stanzas describe the past incident, and the fourth stanza reflects upon this incident and the nature of love. It is a sad, pessimistic poem that portrays love as painful and doomed.

The first stanza paints the scene. Bleak landscape features set a dismal tone and reflect the bitter mindset of the speaker. The lovers stand by a pond on a winter day. Winter can be a lifeless season, and all the details of the scene contribute to a mood of torpor or constriction. Instead of being bright or even glaring, the sun is “white,” as if drained of all its vitality. Dead leaves lie on the ground as a reminder of the end of the natural cycle of life and death. These leaves are “gray” and come from an “ash”: Both words reinforce the gloominess of this colorless, inert scene. Other details contribute to a feeling of disappointment and threat. For example, the sun is described “as though chidden of God” and the ground is called the “starving sod.”

The next two stanzas, which describe the lover, sustain the dismal mood and increase the feeling of menace. The description of the woman’s glance and their conversation suggests that their love had become boring and meaningless to her. Things become even more dire in stanza 3, when the lover’s smile is likened—in a metaphor instead of the simile of stanza 2—to “the deadest thing/ Alive,” and her bitter grin is compared to “an ominous bird a-wing.”

The pain predicted by this bitter grin is confirmed in stanza 4. This moment spelled the death of their relationship, but even more pain and suffering followed in the deceptions and wrongs that ensued. The hurt that the speaker suffered is intensified by the puns on “keen,” “wring,” and “edge.” Used figuratively, the literal or concrete meanings of these words imply physical pain. The vagueness and generalized tone of this last stanza implies that the assertion that “love deceives,/ And wrings with wrongs” is a generalization that applies to all love, not just this particular love.