Tag Archives: Poems

Neutral Tones: Thomas Hardy

8 Mar

Hardy produced some of literature’s finest elegiac poems upon his wife’s death. His relationship with Emma, though, while she was living had been fraught with tension. This poem, even with this biographical detail, conveys a sense of a dead relationship. Note the images he repeats and the antitheses he sets up between words of opposite meaning.

Neutral Tones

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
– They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
On which lost the more by our love.

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. . . .

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
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.

Hardy’s poetry often excludes the reader with private details such as ‘the original air-blue gown’ in The Voice and the ‘tedious riddles of years ago’ in this poem. This privacy makes the poem feel intimate; it has a similar effect to reading Jane Austen – as though you are overhearing a secret conversation.
The passion of love, traditionally represented by the metaphor of fire, has destroyed the landscape into a wasteland of ash. Even the ‘white’ sun has been drained of colour. They images all convey a sense of a dead relationship. The succinct repetition of these same images in the last stanza creates a neat frame with the beginning to conclude the poem.

Dictionary:
chidden, scolded
sod, a lump of soil
curst, archaic spelling of cursed

See also: A Broken Appointment, Thomas Hardy

A Broken Appointment: Thomas Hardy

15 Jan

You did not come,

And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb.

Yet less for loss of your dear presence there

Than that I thus found lacking in your make

That high compassion which can overbear

Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake

Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,

You did not come.

 

You love not me,

And love alone can lend you loyalty;

– I know and knew it. But, unto the store

Of human deeds divine in all but name,

Was it not worth a little hour or more

To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came

To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be

You love not me?

From this beautiful poem came the title of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy, The Time-Torn Man. The biography itself is delightful and certainly the one of choice for anyone interested in Hardy.  The plaintive, echoing lines that frame the stanzas capture his sense of loss. The certainty of the ‘you did not come’ in comparison with the progressively less certain second stanza increases the effect of this insecurity. I have quoted this poem from the Penguin edition of poems selected by Claire Tomalin, which The Sunday Times described as, ‘Some of the loveliest poems in the English language’. This edition is lovely indeed in itself, with a cream background and a flowing pattern of soft red flowers and leaves with gold writing. It is almost pocket sized – it certainly fits into my handbag – and is a lovely indulgence for a commute, break or tea time treat.