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.
Written in the ballad tradition, the poem subtley connects the present with the past. The sense of loss and sadness weaves through the simple stanzas and justifies some critics views that Hardy was as an authority of sadness. The ballad is a reflection of a poetic mind with sight. The title reflects an image of mellowness and contains the suggestion of the aural as well as the visual. The word ‘Tones’ refers to sounds of music or varying articulations and as the poem shows, the word is used also for colours. Neutral Tones imply a sense of something hushed, soft and not vivid. The past is appropriately recalled with a touch of solemnity which gives way to a memory of what time does to a relationship and surrounding nature. The passage of time blends with the hanging face of nature – the face that preoccupies the narrator is somber in shade and texture. The implication is that of a dying emotion or an emotion which is captivated in a tired state of mind which his coped with tempests and has now acquired a different experience.
The first stanza of the poem sets the mood of the poem. A picture of a bleak day, which though, “white” is bereft of the brightness associated with white. Note how the mood interprets the scene or the setting. The white sun is “as though chidden of God”, which suggests how the mighty force of the sun lies diminished on a winter day. The next two lines of the stanza sharpen the image of a sense of helplessness integral to the time of the year. The description shifts from the first person subject “we” to the wintry day.
The second stanza constructs the theme of love which had its roots in the past and has remained in the past. Has the relationship grown or does the poem contain a sense of loss of a phase which could not sustain the intrinsic mysteries of the relationship.
The third stanza plays on the images of “death” and “bitterness” describing the decline of a relationship. The simile of “an ominous bird – wing” clinches the experience of despairing, fruitless love which, over time has not only diminished, but is riddled with a sense of disillusionment.
The last stanza shows how the time of the year, winter, has become a metaphor for a lost relationship and a bitterly learnt truth that love leads to betrayal. The realization is a source of unhappiness, “And wrings with wrong”. The surrounding environment, seeped in wintry leaflessness relates to the past images of “bereaved” love.
The poem works through a series of contrasts, alliterative effects and similes reflecting a state of mind compared with a season which has been sapped of life and health. The future is bleak and the past has now become a sad memory.