The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

Many prosodic devices contribute to the mood of exhaustion and doom. A tetrameter line is shorter than the English norm, a pentameter. These short lines’ feelings of sparseness and constraint underline the feelings created by words such as “starving” and reflect the speaker’s impoverished, bitter spirit. Iambic tetrameter lines generally have a quicker pace than iambic pentameters, producing a sense of energy. However, many monosyllabic words and an abundance of anapests retard the pace of these lines. In the first stanza, for example, line 1 has one anapest, line 2 has three anapests, line 3 has two anapests, and line 4 has two anapests. The poem has twenty-three anapests or dactyls. The many unaccented syllables in anapests or dactyls weaken a line and contribute to a sense of fatigue and alienation. There are also quite a few trochaic feet. Trochees and dactyls, which consist of an accented syllable followed by unaccented syllables, are “downbeat” and suggest disappointment or diminishment.

Alliteration, assonance, and rhyme also reinforce many words’ negative connotations. “Day,” in line 1, is not inherently negative, but its rhyming associations with “gray” and “lay” infect the “winter’s day” with bleak fatigue. The alliteration in “leaves,” “lay,” and “fallen” underline their torpor. The assonance of the long e in “keen” and “deceives” taints the bare “tree” in the first and last stanzas with peril. The assonance of many low-frequency vowel sounds, such as oo (“stood”), aw (“God”), and ah (“fallen”), brings down the mood of the poem.

The diction is simple, with almost entirely one-or two-syllable words. In such a context the threatening archaic word “chidden” attracts attention. The only three-syllable words in the poem—“tedious,” “bitterness,” and “ominous”—also stand out and mark the defining features of the couple’s love.

The poem’s syntax is, for the most part, also simple. Therefore, when the syntax is awkward, it calls attention to itself. The syntax that describes the landscape in the first stanza is straightforward. Four simple clauses, with one long prepositional phrase, are joined by the word “and.” All four lines are end-stopped at predictable syntactic pauses.

As the speaker describes his lover in the next two stanzas, however, the syntax begins to contort. It is as if the memory of the lover has crippled the speaker’s language and imagination. The farther he progresses into the description, the more awkward the syntax becomes. Enjambed lines that no longer pause with the syntax betray his mental perturbation. The last line in the second stanza, which describes the meaninglessness of their conversation, is all but unintelligible: “On which lost the more by our love.” The next stanza’s inverted word order, enjambment, and semantic as well as syntactic confusion in the descriptions of deadness and aliveness also reveal the speaker’s failing powers. The speaker is so injured by love that his fraught mind is at a loss for words as he tries to relate his experience. This poem is about the failure of spirit and imagination as well as love.

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Themes