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.
So often poetry seems pre-occupied with falling in love. Not so in this Thomas Hardy poem, which agonizingly tells of a pair falling out of love. They do not fall out of love and into hate, but into something far worse: neutrality, indifference. The title, "Neutral Tones" is indicative of this.
The scene is painted vividly: a pond on a winter day, white sun, some leaves on the dead grass, "fallen from an ash" (tree), gray. The narrator's love eyes him with a bored expression, as if he were a "tedious riddle of years ago." To her, he is nothing more than some unsolvable mystery, grown boring over time. They exchange words that only serve to diminish what little remains of their love ("and some words played between us to and fro on which lost the more by our love").
To me, the saddest description of the poem is that of the narrator's smile: "The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing alive enough to have strength to die." Such weak affection that the only thing left it can do it die. Bitterness replaces a weak smile in a flash, "like an ominous bird-a-wing." Love is dying before our eyes, next to a winter pond strewn with gray, dead leaves. It's an agonizing scene, made worse by the lack of strong emotion. No outpouring of love, no desperate bargaining, no hateful passionate yelling, just a shriveling smile and gray, dead leaves.
The narrator, in the last stanza, has learned "that love deceives" and all he can think about is "Your face, and the God curst sun, and a tree, and a pond edged with grayish leaves." At the start of the poem, the lovers were together, and some small love still existed. It diminished with every passing word, a smile with no strength left faded, and we are then brought into the present, where Love is dead, replaced only in the mind of the narrator by a pond edged with grayish leaves. It's an awful scene, vivid and painful, somehow hurting all the more for the lack of any hate, any sort of pathos. A love killed by indifference, by "neutral tones" is almost too painful to bear.