Form, structure and language

Annotated poem with a checklist of what to consider when looking at a poem: meaning, imagery, structure, tone, language

Form

The poem Neutral Tones is written in quatrains. This straightforward grouping of sets of four lines is one of the simplest and most recognisable poetic forms.

Structure

The poem consists of four stanzas. The rhyme scheme follows the regular pattern abba. The pairs of rhymed lines contribute to the straightforward style of the poem, supporting the idea of a neutral telling of the tale.

The rhythmic pattern of the poem is not consistent. This maybe echoes the uncomfortable feeling which existed between the two people involved and in the eventual breakdown of their relationship.

The fourth stanza provides a turning point for the poem as the reader realises that what has been explained so far is a described memory. This stanza is particularly halting in its structure (look at how the third line is broken up) which perhaps suggests that the speaker does not feel quite as neutral about the memory as the title suggests.

The overall structure of the poem is circular rather than linear as it starts and ends in the same geographical place. One interpretation of this is that the speaker has not come to terms with what has happened and revisits the memory.

Language

Despite the title’s claim, there is a clear pattern of negative words which runs through the poem (‘lost’, ‘deadest’, ‘die’, ‘bitterness’, ‘ominous’).

Some of the words and phrases used by Hardy are deliberately ambiguous. For instance, the words in the title can have more than one meaning. A neutral tone might refer to:

  • a voice, or voices, saying something unbiased and without a particular point of view (this, at least, is the speaker’s claim)
  • pale and washed out colours, particularly the natural features of the landscape which are described as either gray or white

The two words of the title have two distinct meanings and perhaps mirror the feelings of the two people described in the memory.

Imagery

A pond with leaves, surrounded by winter trees
The still water of a pond with no movement suggests how the relationship isn't going anywhere

It is no accident that the poet sets the poem in the season of winter when natural life is less readily visible. The natural features of the landscape in which the poem is set have all been chosen carefully by Hardy to highlight the meaning of the poem and contribute to the tone. In the first stanza, for instance:

Aspect of natureAnalysis
The pondWater is often used by poets to represent life - here it is a small, still body of water with no movement, emphasising how the relationship is not going anywhere.
The sunUsually associated with life and joy - here the sun is white and seemingly deprived of its power to warm and nurture.
The leavesThese are decaying - just like the relationship. They are gray, as though the colour has drained from them. Interestingly, the leaves (presumably from the same tree) in the last stanza are 'grayish', almost as if the memory is stronger than the reality from where the speaker currently stands.
The ashAn ash tree is the source of the leaves but by leaving out the word ‘tree’ the reader is reminded of the remains of a fire that has long since burned out, symbolising the death of the relationship.