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Neutral Tones -- Thomas Hardy

Guest poem sent in by Cristina Gazzieri
(Poem #1611) 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 solved 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.
-- Thomas Hardy
This poem was written in 1890 and published in 1898 and yet, its images and
taste are already those of the twentieth century. The scene proposed by Hardy
is reduced to very few symbolic elements; the pond, the white sun, a few leaves
on the "starving sod" and an ash tree. An image of sterility which foreruns the
best poems by Eliot, though deprived of his intellectual cultivated references
and much more deeply bound to our perception of really experienced failure in
human relationship.

While Eliot is an outside observer of the aridity of man’s life in his age,
Hardy, or his poetic ego, is personally exposing his own scorched bruises. The
poetic voice addresses his woman in the first person and he explores their
mutual feelings without hypocrisy. He indulges on the mean, shabby, ungenerous
words and rancorous considerations, which may typically accompany the end of a
love story. Yet, from line twelve, it becomes evident that what he is relating
was not simply the squalid end of a love story, but a marking experience, a
malediction, which would prevent him from having any kind of love fulfilment in
his life. When I first read the poem I expected some sensual references after
the words "the smile on your mouth" and so, I found the crescendo of sinister
bitterness really striking. I also like the final polysyndeton, which
re-proposes the initial images, but much more pregnant and meaningful, at this
point of the poem.


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