A pond in winter with a bare tree and bench
The memory of the couple standing by a pond is central to the poem

A number of unifying ideas or themes run through the poem. Different readers may attach more or less significance to each of these themes, depending upon how they view the poem.

Memory: the first three stanzas focus on a memory of a moment in the past when the couple stood by the pond. The final stanza is a reflection on the lasting power of that memory.‘Since then, keen lessons that love deceives/ And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me/ Your face’Stanza four reveals that time has moved on and what we have been reading about so far has happened in the past. This shows the lasting power of the memory and the impact it has had on the speaker’s view of love.
(Loss of) Love: far from being a conventional love poem, 'Neutral Tones' deals with the death of love and feelings of loss.‘a grin of bitterness swept thereby/ Like an ominous bird a-wing…’The opposition of ‘grin’ and ‘bitterness’ and the comparison of the loss of love to a menacing bird flying away, heightens the pessimistic tone.

How does Hardy show the importance of a memory?

  • The memory is placed first and takes up three of the four stanzas.
  • What happened in the past is shown to have affected the speaker, and they have learnt other lessons about love in the time that has passed.
  • Beneath the supposed ‘neutral tone’ there is a sense of regret and loss.