Come A Little Bit Closer Now Baby: Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones”

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In early winter, the grass in North America still retains a cast of its autumn green, but after a few nights of deep freeze have killed the last of the ticks and fleas, the green turns greenish-grey.  It’s then I begin remembering Thomas Hardy’s moving, highly-compressed and resonant sixteen-liner, “Neutral Tones.”  Green is gone, trees are bare, cold days come with high thin clouds through which a small sun appears white.  In the world of Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones,” love, like green “sod”, does not last.

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 grey.

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 greyish leaves.
1867

The beloved has betrayed the speaker who reports only his visual perceptions of her: “Your eyes,” “The smile on your mouth” that turns to “a grin of bitterness,” and lastly, “Your face.”  A reflective lyric (“Since then”), the tone is elegiac; innocence is lost in “keen lessons” of which this is the remembered first occasion.  In the historic present of the poem, the speaker has learned more than once, “that love deceives/And wrings with wrong.”  Such painfully acquired knowledge is of sufficient force to have shaped the speaker’s present attitude toward love.  The memory of his beloved’s face, especially her eyes and her smile, merged with the memory of a place and a particular moment.

Of the many effects Hardy’s poem achieves, this synthesis of the subjective world of human emotion with the objective, natural world, is perhaps my favorite.  The locus of the poem is so simple: Two standing by a pond on a winter day, the sun white, “a few [grey] leaves” scattered about on “starving sod.”  The scene and the fundamental dramatic situation are established with stunning economy in the first of four quatrains; the entirety written in iambic pentameter, the rhyme scheme ABBA, CDDC-, EFFE, GHHG.  It is this synthesis, or unity, which gives rise to the integrity of the poem.  Not a word less, or a word more, is possible.  How Hardy achieves this integrity reveals the mastery of the his craft.

Still, a large part of such a synthesis is not technique at all; or not technique alone.  Thomas Hardy’s human heart must have broken and broken again, and he must have felt, at times, that he was as “God-curst” as the sun in its appearance that day, “as though chidden of God.”  The empathy that informs such a vision chooses technique, engenders metaphor.  The sun shrinks in its radiance as the speaker’s youthful passion, his capacity for vulnerability, has shrunken along with his willingness to trust.  The landscape is composed of neutral tones (“white,” “grey” and “greyish”), all is chastened, even the sod is “starving.”

Most poets, I imagine, feel a delight similar to my own when I read a poem that demonstrates the power of well-chosen adjectives to advance the action: “starving,” “tedious,” “deadest,” “ominous,” “keen,” “God-curst,” “greyish.”  Very little happens: the two lovers meet; “some words played between” them “to and fro” but they barely hold meaning because love, and the fear of losing love, are so acutely present, the words are “lost” (“the more by our love”).   She smiles, and then her smile turns to a “grin” that expresses, in the speaker’s interpretation, “bitterness.”  The smile, as it changes, seems to sweep over the speaker.  He senses immediately what is implied: she has lied to him (“love deceives”).  The “ominous bird” (a chough, perhaps, or a raven or buzzard), portents death.  Only one “thing” is “Alive enough to have [the] strength to die,”––the “smile on your mouth.”  When his beloved’s smile becomes a grin, her betrayed is revealed to him.

The eight lines of the second and third stanzas focus on the appearance of the beloved and the speaker’s thoughts and feelings about what her appearance signifies.  He does not, at first, understand why she is looking at him so quizzically: “Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove/Over tedious riddles of years ago.”  A deflective action on her part, passive aggression we would call it these days.  She looks at him as though she does not understand him to throw him off his game, but she cannot sustain her pose: the grin breaks through her smile.

Hardy chose “ash” as the tree that shed those “few leaves” for its association with death, but most likely he wanted, as well, the assonance of the a (“And” “a” “leaves,” “lay” “starving,” “had” “fallen” “an” are all within a line of “ash”), plus the alliteration on s (“leaves” “starving” “sod”).   In the second stanza, because of the slant end rhymes of “rove” and “love,”  we can assume “rove” was chosen for the “r” that echoes in the next line in “Over,” “riddles” and “years,” and with the terminal word in the third line “fro.” Although it’s the vowel and not the consonant that’s the big player here: “rove” “ago” “fro” and “love” draw out the long o.  A close examination of those long os in that stanza, is well matched with a look at assonance on the i in the third: “smile,” “thing,” “Alive,” “die,” “grin,” “bitterness” “ominious” and “bird-a-wing”.  It is the e that has the most assonance in the fourth quatrain.  What rivets me here, and I wonder how often the best poets do this, is that Hardy takes the vowel that operates in his terminal rhymes and amplifies that sound in his word choices in each respective stanza.  English lends itself to this, and yet the process of selection, because so pronounced, is worth noting.

The psychological dimensions of this fateful lovers’ encounter conflated with the landscape and weather, are, as so often true in Hardy, the core of the matter.  What makes it work is the tightly woven intricacies of rhyme, meter, a variety of sound devices and other repetitive patterns, as well as the figuration, particularly that central paradox at the beginning of the third stanza (“The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing/Alive enough to have strength to die”).

How elegant, compressed and intricate this fine lyric is with its sorrowful lesson––“love deceives,” knowledge that “wrong wrings” out of the lover the way water may be rung out of a wet shirt.  Hardy is a heartbreaker, but he is, as well, deeply empathetic.  These human qualities that extend beyond craft (and that are nonetheless captured within its compass) makes him one of the truly great English poets.

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Come A Little Bit Closer Now Baby is Gray Jacobik’s regular MQR Blog column dedicated to the practice of close reading.

3 thoughts on “Come A Little Bit Closer Now Baby: Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones””

  1. Dawn Potter says:

    I love what you have to say about adjectives, Gray. Recently I wrote about the way Plath uses modifiers, which often transmit the illusion of verbal rather than descriptive energy. It’s a shame that many so-called writing manuals deride adjectives and adverbs; I think such advice does great disservice both to apprentice writers and to the language itself.

    1. Gray Jacobik says:

      Well I like your phrase “the illusion of verbal . . . energy” — may have to steal that one. For the longest time I’ve thought that adjectives and adverbs had gotten a bad rap — one of the reasons why contemporary Irish & Scots poets influenced me a great deal in the 1990s: they hadn’t gotten the word and had gone on their merry way modifying, aptly of course. Things have gotten better, but in the 70s & 80s, it was scarce pickins’ adjectively speaking. Thanks for your comment.

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