Thomas Hardy's Neutral Tones: Never a second chance in sight!
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
Is this an elegy? The tone sems too bitter and recriminatory, yet the closing list at the end works to yield up in a final sense, the summary of a relationship irrevocably over, 'done with' despite himself, yet perversely lingering overt he detrtitus of death.
Has the poet lost his faith? Or does he feel that he is being punished by a God who gives no second chances? So he comes across as an almost stroppy, almost moody youth thwarted by more adult interventions? The sense of bitterness or is it exasperation I wonder pervades the poem. The speaker does refer to the 'tedious riddles' of the past and perhaps he remembers the impotent, futile repetition of disabling questions about their relationship and perhaps specifically his unsupportable behaviour? I do find the line: 'the smile on your smile was the deadest thing' bleakly revelatory and grotesque.This a memory and yet her face seems gargoyle like( this is Hardy afterall!) He punishes his wife through surreal distortion. Perhaps hse was too knowing, too unforgiving of his lapses? Should she have been more indulgent?
Why is the poet returning to this disturbing landscape of memory? Or is his act of remembrance beyond his control, made pathological through endless repetition? I do find the bird image works very powerfully as a symbol of ill fatedness..where is he Ancient mariner here? I would suggest he is the poet himself. Everything seems to conspire to thwart the poet, to limit his behaviour and expressiveness.
This is a very human poem and does reveal the anger and petulance of the poet himself, recalling his partner's dissatisfaction with him, something missing in most of the 1912 poems where loss is tinged with nostalgia and rose tinged regret. What a final image!The tone and desultory summary of love gone wrong through the litany of details of this landscape is devastating. Gillian Clarke has certainly absorbed some of Thomas Hardy in 'Cold Knap Lake' and 'October'?