On ‘Neutral Tones’ by Thomas Hardy: A Reflection

Alice Robson reflects on a poem and a reply to it

Image(s): Book Riot


There are some poems that reach out straight into your heart and grab it, lightly squeezing and leaving you slightly dizzy, reeling from the truth you have suddenly found. Poetry can do wonderful things. It is a mode of self-expression, a method of storytelling, and a means of communication. It makes us feel less alone.


Poetry takes time and effort to digest. I read it in a calm moment I’ve managed to snatch in the day, in the bath or in bed, a slim anthology is often thrown into my bag hastily as I dash out the door, hoping for a spare minute to read a few lines and ponder them as I go about my life. I love poetry because it captures a moment in time, or several, and links it altogether, creating a meaning, a feeling, that holds true to that present which has since slipped through the hands of time, unable to be held. It recreates, with the benefit of hindsight, and reveals the raw reality of a moment, laid bare for the reader to see. If they have the time.


‘Neutral Tones’ reads almost as an incantation. Its spellbinding imagery makes me believe I can see every vein on every leaf that has fallen from the trees in the first stanza. The idea that the vibrancy we are so often told comes with love, that the world truly comes alive when we fall in love, is turned on its head. Hardy takes a moment which could have been an ordinary walk between any couple, lost in their relationship history, and holds it in time. He looks back with the knowledge of this relationship leading to heartache, and can plot the moments where he may have, perhaps should have, recognised it going wrong. This is a moment where he could have foreshadowed the future, if he’d only looked a little harder.


‘Alive enough to have strength to die’. That line always makes me stop. Each time I read this poem it reminds me of another moment, or a slightly different alteration of a feeling that is so hard to place.


Some of my favourite poems have been written in response to others. Poetry is no longer a solitary act, but a means of creating a sense of shared humanity, to reflect on feelings and images that connect us. The following poem is a reply to Thomas Hardy:


We stand on the sands-


exhale

inhale

pause – the foam curls over itself


-our tongues mimic the ripples, dancing around themselves,

the words. We sway

but I’d rather we stay still

so I could hear your breath in between-


pause

exhale

inhale – the dampness of the salt on your skin


-your heartbeat. It used

to cling to my spine, my neck,

an imprint.

My eyes are shut and I can’t remember-

inhale

pause

exhale – the sky is stretching away from us


-who I used to be before

I could trace the smell of seaweed and

you. There were seashells that

crunched as you turned


a wave caught the tip of my toe.