Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy (1867)
BY THOMAS HARDY
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,
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There is a contradiction between the dead smile, with its frozen and wintry lack of indulgent amusement and the run on nature of the line to the word “alive”. This is aliveness is again negated at the end of the line in the words “strength to die”. The oxymoronic metaphor of this smile signals through its deadness and its mirroring of the landscape the end of all hope and the end of love. The smile now alters to “a grin of bitterness”, this grin evokes the image of the grin of a skeleton in the dance of death. This grin sweeps over the poet in the manner of a bird flying away. But it is the word “ominous” that catches the reader’s attention, with its overtones of something horrible about to happen. There is also a pagan-like quality to the word with its sense of prediction of something inauspicious. This can be related to the pagan nature of the ash tree and the gloomy landscape. The grin of bitterness could also be that of the poet a realisation of his loss of trust in love, his realisation that it is deceptive and meaningless.
The idea of deception is openly stated in the final stanza of the poem:
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.
The realisation that the poem is set firmly in a past held in memory is visible in the starting