“Neutral Tones” is an early poem by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). It was included in his first collection, entitled “Wessex Poems”, which was published in 1898, but this volume was a selection from 200 or so poems that he had written over a thirty year period. “Neutral Tones” bears the date 1867, but it is possible that it was written a few years later and that 1867 was when the love affair began that is the subject of the poem.
This is actually a poem about the end of an affair and the parting of two people who were formerly in love. It is possible that the woman in question is Tryphena Sparks, who was a cousin of Hardy’s on his mother’s side. If so, the incident described in the poem would be the breaking of their engagement in 1871, after Hardy had met and courted Emma Gifford. The pond in the poem could be the same as that in his much later poem “At Rushy-Pond”, which is also concerned with a broken love affair (referred to as in the distant past), with the implication that the “heath-hemmed pond” was a trysting place on the path that connected their two homes. However, it is also quite possible that the location and the woman in question have nothing to do with the Dorset heathland or Tryphena Sparks. It is known that Hardy had several love affairs as a young man, and the poems may well be connected with one of these. It is also a possibility that Hardy was not being totally autobiographical in "Neutral Tones" but portraying an experience that combined the emotions of several such breakings-up, set in an imaginary or half-remembered location for the sake of composing a memorable poem.
“Neutral Tones” comprises four four-line stanzas, with an ABBA rhyme scheme. The emphasis throughout is on coldness and lack of colour, with the scene matching the emotions of the two people involved.
The first stanza sets the scene of the pond on a winter day. The sun has no colour, “as though chidden of God”. The grey leaves that have fallen on “the starving sod” are, appropriately enough, “from an ash”, which is an excusable pun.
The second stanza describes the meeting of the two in ways that emphasise how their love has died. Whereas formerly they would have gazed into each other’s eyes and given each other emotional warmth, her eyes are now “as eyes that rove / Over tedious riddles of years ago”. There is conversation between them, but, in place of the “sweet nothings” that lovers would exchange it is now nothing more than “some words played between us” which only serve for their love to be “lost the more”.
The theme continues in the third stanza, with the woman’s smile described in the starkest terms as: “the deadest thing / Alive enough to have strength to die” and as a bitter grin that is likened to “an ominous bird a-wing”.
The final stanza brings together the scene and the emotions in a remarkable way. What has happened is that the images described in the poem have become so closely associated with the memory of the event that they cannot be separated. It is not just that a sight of “the God-curst sun”, for example, will now remind him for ever of that time of parting, but that these images will come into his mind whenever he thinks of that event. Hence the “keen lessons that loves deceives / … have shaped to me / Your face” (and the other images).
Hardy made use of this concept in other places in his work, particularly his novels. For example, in “Desperate Remedies”, his character Cytherea sees her father fall off a roof to his death, but the image that stays with her ever afterwards is the sight of shafts of sunlight breaking through the clouds. The link thence becomes so strong that she can never see such shafts without the memory recurring of her father’s fall.
Hardy may well have been attracted to this idea after reading Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”, in which the poet noted that the shock of his father’s death became for ever associated with things he had seen shortly before. James Joyce would also use this idea, coining the term “epiphany” for this sort of visionary clarity. Philip Larkin, who was greatly influenced by Hardy’s poetry, was also struck by the same truth that, occasionally, ordinary experience can be transcended by such visions. This is apparent in poems such as “The Whitsun Weddings” and “High Windows”.
It should also be remembered that Thomas Hardy was an admirer of the Impressionist school of art (he had considered at one time becoming an art critic). For Hardy, the important thing about an impressionist painting was that the artist’s eye was focused on a specific part of a scene and the rest, which was of much less importance to him, could be depicted with less clarity. Hardy believed that the poet also worked as an impressionist, with his eye picking out the details that were of most significance. That certainly seems to be case with “Neutral Tones”, and the result is a well-crafted and impressive (in more than one sense) piece of work.