Poet's Pick April 22
Thomas Hardy: "Neutral Tones"
Selected by Brian Culhane
National Poetry Month 2014

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Brian Culhane's Poetry Month Pick, April 22, 2014

"Neutral Tones"
by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

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.


* Brian Culhane Comments:

When asked to comment on a poem of my choosing, I was baffled by an excess of choices and began ruminating on the many poets I’ve written about and studied and taught. How was I to choose one poet, let alone a single poem? 

But then I thought of the boy I was before I’d discovered the wide world of poetry; or, put it this way, that boy who had yet to understand how such things as poems (memorialized in gilt-edged volumes, like the leather tome his mother had presented him with on his seventeenth birthday)—poems written by people far distant from himself in every way possible—how these could apply to his own particular situation, his own petty, frustrating, disorderly and bitter teenage life. 

I see him standing in the snow of Central Park’s Great Lawn, a thin book of Hardy’s Selected in his pocket. He is facing, too serious to be shy about overt melodrama, a snow-covered pond. He has just read “Neutral Tones,” which happened to be the first poem in the collection, and he realized, with something of a shock, that this fellow Hardy, whoever he was, actually had written something of immediate worth. Hardy had spoken to him, his plight, his heart, his despair. The crusted snow he was now looking at held some dead branches, broken off by some winter wind. The sun above was white, very white. He was not sure what “chidden of God” meant, but that did not stop him from assuming it meant something ominous and appropriate to his desperate condition. Sod. Sod! Perfect. The rhyme rubbed the dirt into his skin. And ash! Ash was perfect too, for he was smoking a cigarette at this very moment and its ashes were absolutely a symbol of his once burning passion. Everything was cold, grey, cursed. (This denizen of Manhattan was not a student of trees, and only much later would he think of putting leaf and tall ash together.) 

But if the beautiful bleakness of Hardy’s scene appealed to him in these first intensely self-dramatized moments, on repeated readings, his imagination became even more stirred by the lack of dramatic color in the stanzas that followed. “Some words played between us to and fro”—what banality! He thought: This is indeed how a love ends, with recriminations, “tedious riddles,” all those belabored etceteras that “lost the more by our love.” 

The boy is pacing now, the pages flipping in the chill afternoon breeze. He finds he’s memorized the poem’s darkest nadir:

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;

It was not a cruel smile, then; just a “thing” with one more spasm of life left. Perfect. 

Except that the memory of past tenderness pulls the mouth into a rictus of bitterness.

Except that all he has left to relive is a memory of their last meeting together, a scene bereft of any color more vivid than ash. Perhaps “neutral tones” refers to the neutrality of the two voices that no longer have the wish to prolong an argument; perhaps to the shade of neutral grey light thrown down by the “God curst sun.”  

Either fit. As did the whole tone of the poem itself, a tone of voice I would later come to associate with Hardy, the poet of “unhope,” the first poet who spoke to me, spoke to me directly.

In my coat pocket all that winter, Hardy’s book would be my companion, to be pulled out to pass the time in dimly lit subway stations or all-night coffee shops along Broadway. In its brooding astringency, “Neutral Tones” allowed its neophyte reader to put grief behind me. At nineteen, I also knew I’d found another love. 

About Brian Culhane:
Brian Culhane has been featured in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Slate, Literary Imagination, Salamander, Memorius, Southwest Review, Sewanee Review, PN Review, and Plume. His first book, The King's Question (Graywolf), won the Poetry Foundation's Emily Dickinson Award. He teaches at an independent school in Seattle.

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