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“The deadest thing alive enough to have strength to die”: Hardy’s “Neutral Tones”

March 17, 2011

Cover, Ralph Pite's biography of Hardy.

Today, a glance at a familiar anthology piece by Thomas Hardy: “Neutral Tones.” I’m not certain we usually do justice to one feature of the poem: namely, the fact that it tells us that “love deceives.” This distinction might (or might not) seem a matter of great consequence, but I will take it seriously (some may say absurdly seriously). Consider how often bitter love-poems authored by men imply, or state outright, that not so much “love” as woman “deceives.” The poetry of the English Renaissance, of course, takes woman as the very type of inconstancy; it rests on a foundation of happy misogyny. Hardy’s up to something different—something I believe his biographers, in pinning the poem to this young woman or that with whom we know Hardy to have been involved (his cousin Tryphena Sparks, for example), have perhaps led us to miss.

Ralph Pite, in Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life, does rather well with what biographical matter may be brought to bear. “As Hardy’s home receded from him [while he lived in London],” Pite notes, his ideas about women and courtship changed somewhat. “The virginal,” Pite suggests, seemed to Hardy “more and more like the unsophisticated.” For these reasons, Pite surmises, the aforementioned Tryphena, a likely early love of Hardy’s, “became linked” in the poet’s mind “with feelings of claustrophobia,” by which I believe Pite to mean something like (or including) provinciality. Essentially, Pite continues, “Hardy started to judge her more. He looked at her with London eyes and she seemed far less special than before. Now she appeared ‘but one / Of the common crowd.'” This line, Pite continues, is from “‘At Waking,’ a poem written in  Weymouth in 1869. It is an anguished piece, as powerful as anything Hardy had written before, in which he confronts the bleak experience of ‘waking’ up 
from a dream to find everything prosaic and plain. He was to have the same experience again, many times. On this occasion, it is love that becomes illusory and Tryphena does seem to be secretly referred to.”

And there’s more. Tryphena, Pite explains, “was becoming ‘a blank’ to [Hardy]—not just valueless and not wicked or deceitful (there’s no sense of Hardy’s being jilted here); instead Tryphena has somehow become meaningless to him, empty and ungraspable. Try as he might, resist it as he might, nothing could halt the dream’s decline. Other poems from this period—such as ‘The Dawn After the Dance‘ and ‘In the Vaulted Way‘—are variants on the same essential situation, confirming that Hardy went through some change of heart, which he could scarcely account for himself, still less explain satisfactorily to anyone else. ‘A Waking’ is closest in feeling, however, to the desolation expressed in his earlier poem ‘Neutral Tones,’ and out of these experiences Hardy later wrote with extraordinary insight about the way that love could mysteriously disappear—how lovers could be abandoned by love itself.” That last turn of phrase (my emphasis) bears all the insight. Love has its own agency: it comes over us, takes us up; and it just as often abandons us, quite without regard to such petty things as our private expectations and aspirations. Is that so, as Hardy sees it? Is Pite correct? In what sense? And how does such an insight, if insight it is, illuminate (say) “Neutral Tones”? The text of the poem:

Title page of the volume in which "Neutral Tones" was first collected.

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.

Joshua Reynolds' 1772 portrait of Johnson.

Samuel Johnson says of the witches’ wicked incantations in Macbeth (IV.i) that “it is observable that Shakespeare, on this great occasion, which involves the fate of a king, multiplies all the circumstances of horror. The babe, whose finger is used, must be strangled in its birth; the grease must not only be human, but must have dropped from a gibbet, the gibbet of a murderer; and even the sow, whose blood is used, must have offended nature by devouring her own farrow.”

Something similar might be said of how thoroughgoing Hardy is, in “Neutral Tones,” with the imagery and phrasing of abjection. The scene must be barrenest winter, of course. The sky should be not merely pallid, but pallid as with fear, having not simply been cursed but “God-curst.” The leaves must be “few” in number (poverty even here!), and, of course, from an “ash”—with the available figurative extension into the gray “ashes” of a desire now utterly extinct. The sod must be “starving.” The riddles must be “tedious.” And above all, that “smile” must be “the deadest thing / Alive enough to have strength to die”—and, moreover, must be complemented by a “grin” that crosses it “like an ominous bird a-wing.” Could any poet “multiply” the circumstances of bitterness more fully? The poem, it seems, touches every possible ramification of the matter, such that I find it hard, at times, to keep my mind fixed on its argument, as I may call it, rather than on the sheer feat of its achieved, appalling—almost comically so—extravagance. Who could possibly outdo Hardy here? “The deadest thing alive enough to have strength to die”! Many a poet must have envied Hardy that line.

But I mean nothing whimsical. A couple stands by a desolate winter pond, themselves in a state of desolation. Inner and outer weather match. They speak of a love now expired, and debate—half-heartedly and indecisively, it must be said, as “some words” “play between [them]”—the question of which of the two “lost the more” in the affair. Nothing at all heated about the encounter, so absolutely bereft are they of desire. Even the meter lacks a certain dedication (so to speak) as to motive. The lines vary, in a desultory, unsystematic way, from 9 to 10 syllables, with some perhaps ranging out to 11 (depending on how one reckons the elisions, though the metrical contract calls for no strict reckoning: even here we fall back into lassitude). Still, there is pattern, with accentual meter. The first three lines of each stanza carry four stresses each, the truncated fourth lines three (these latter should be indented, though I can’t figure out how to make WordPress‘s text editor do that). Some of the feet in each stanza are triplets, some not. And all stanzas rhyme ABBA.

The man is a tedious riddle to the woman, and she, for her part, bears that perhaps most inert of all “smiles” in English poetry: alive enough to have strength to die, but no more. I get no idea that either the one or the other bears the brunt of the blame, notwithstanding, as I say, that they somewhat pointlessly debate which of them “lost the more by [their] love” (i.e., in the love affair). The poem remains “neutral” as to that question. As neutral, let’s say, as the lovers themselves are perhaps now “neutered”—which, for my purposes, is to say chastened—by the whole sorry business. In any case, the third stanza, which dispatches with the particulars, trails off into indecisive ellipsis. The last look we have at either one of the pair is “ominous,” but an omen of what?

In fact, to be strict about it, the poem assigns blame not to either of the lovers but to love itself, as I suggested. And there’s our omen.

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.

“Keen” lessons, where “keen” means “cruel” and “harsh” (Oxford English Dictionary sense A.2.c); “cutting” or sharp (O.E.D. sense 3); or “stinging” and “acrid” (O.E.D. sense 4); or “very sharp, biting, piercing” (O.E.D. sense 4.b); or “causing acute pain or deep distress” (O.E.D. sense 5.a), and so on. Take your pick.

Were there any heat at all in the poem one might allow for some intimation of “keen” in its verbal form (“to utter the keen, or Irish lamentation for the dead; to wail or lament bitterly” [O.E.D. sense 1 for “keen” as an intransitive verb]). But whether the keen lessons ever lead the man speaking in the poem to “keen” is, I should think, a moot point. He’ll have, has had, his bitter lamentations. But one gathers—on the evidence of the poem before us here—that he bears them up with stoic reserve, breaking it only to indite the poem itself (we perhaps inevitably identify poet and speaker here). Insofar as he holds to his poetry for recourse in such a plight, he contains his keenings in such perfectly dour, muted, and satisfying statements of them as we find in “Neutral Tones”; which title gives the pain its proper name.

Portrait of Dryden, by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

But I say again, not lovers in general, and certainly not the two lovers considered here, deceive. And that point carries me into more ulterior, and chiefly speculative, precincts (anyone wishing to disembark now may do so here). Love itself does the deceiving, has its way with us all. Hardy has good company for the expression of this sentiment, starting with Lucretius. Consider John Dryden‘s translation of Book Four of De Rerum Natura (or The Nature of Things) “Concerning,” as Dryden phrases it, “the Nature of Love,” one passage of which I lately stumbled upon in Christopher Ricks‘ edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse:

When Love its utmost vigour does imploy,
Ev’n then, ’tis but a restless wandring joy:
Nor knows the Lover, in that wild excess,
With hands or eyes, what first he wou’d possess:
But strains at all; and fast’ning where he strains,
Too closely presses with his frantique pains:
With biteing kisses hurts the twining fair,
Which shews his joyes imperfect, unsincere:
For stung with inward rage, he flings around,
And strives t’avenge the smart on that which gave the wound.
But love those eager bitings does restrain,
And mingling pleasure mollifies the pain.
For ardent hope still flatters anxious grief,
And sends him to his Foe to seek relief:
Which yet the nature of the thing denies;
For Love, and Love alone of all our joyes
By full possession does but fan the fire,
The more we still enjoy, the more we still desire.
Nature for meat, and drink, provides a space;
And when receiv’d they fill their certain place;
Hence thirst and hunger may be satisfi’d,
But this repletion is to Love deny’d:
Form, feature, colour, whatsoe’re delight
Provokes the Lovers endless appetite,
These fill no space, nor can we thence remove
With lips, or hands, or all our instruments of love:
In our deluded grasp we nothing find,
But thin aerial shapes, that fleet before the mind.
As he who in a dream with drought is curst,
And finds no real drink to quench his thirst,
Runs to imagin’d Lakes his heat to steep,
And vainly swills and labours in his sleep;
So Love with fantomes cheats our longing eyes,
Which hourly seeing never satisfies…

Page 1 of "De Rerum Natura" by Titus Lucretius Carus; from Tanaquil Faber's 1675 edition.

A simple, disturbing idea—oh, ten or a dozen ways reiterated. Love with the capital L, in its “utmost vigour,” is a thing that takes hold of us, almost as a parasite does its host, and pursues interests and ends (if interests and ends it may be said to have) not merely out of harmony with those touched by its “rages” but very likely contrary to them, or at any rate indifferent to them. Love, as Dryden’s Lucretius figures it, is fully agent in operation: it employs itself. It mingles pleasure with pain (cunning maneuver!), the better to realize whatever ends it has. It deludes us. “Love,” in the passage here translated, can mean only one thing, of course: sexual desire and what comes of its coming, the “typical” (or anyway inherently possible) result of which is the reproduction of ever more men and women—fresh “lovers” who will themselves, upon achieving maturity, find themselves subject to, prey to, a force beyond their ken and proper management; which force shall “cheat” them with “phantoms,” and provoke them with appetites unrequitable. “The more we still enjoy, the more we still desire.” The enterprise of “Love,” once it overtakes this man or that woman, leaves him or her with the knowledge only that

In our deluded grasp we nothing find,
But thin aerial shapes, that fleet before the mind.

A postage stamp honoring Gregor Mendel, monk & pioneering geneticist.

“Nor knows the Lover, in [his or her] wild excess,” what all the agitation is about, or even why it should be. Now, who would speak in praise of such a thing as Love understood in this sense? Better never to have been a party to it. But the fact of being alive, and so able to contemplate its slings and arrows, manifests that we are born of it, born to it, marked out to endure its visitations. I’m framing talk about “Love” (as Lucretius via Dryden makes it out) for purposes perhaps obvious to anyone who has read a few pages within The Era of Casual Fridays (I tend to harp on such matters): namely, so as to bring talk of Love under Darwinian auspices (how agreeable to Hardy, after all), and more particularly still, for my own reasons, under neo-Darwinian auspices. I’m talking about Love, and suppose Dryden’s Lucretius to be talking about Love, in a vocabulary that will, with a little fancy, allow us—and why not?—to bring into contact with it what Richard Dawkins says about the “selfish-gene,” or DNA, the mechanism which, though unknown alike to Hardy, Dryden, and Lucretius, is yet somehow intuited in what they all say. Incidentally, I’m not entirely fanciful, I think, in speaking of Hardy’s having “intuited” this; he’d read On the Origin of Species when he wrote “Neutral Tones,” and, some decades later, after Mendel‘s work became generally known, he penned such poems as the proto-Dawkinsian “Heredity” (text given below†) and “The Pedigree,” for a reading of which latter poem click here. (I guess I should add, even if only as an aside, that Lucretius certainly does try to account for sexual reproduction generally in this part of De Rerum Natura; he’s out for the whole thing. The passage Dryden translated falls squarely in that context.)

To be in love, to be taken hold of by “Love,” as Hardy and Dryden’s Lucretius inasmuch as say, is to be had, in the colloquial American sense—to be taken advantage of, to be subject to the force of the thing only to be discarded by it, bereft (as in “Neutral Tomes”); now confused, now bewildered, now maddened, now weeping; and, of course, now with a smile on one’s face that is the deadest thing alive enough to have strength to die. Love “hurts,” as the old song has it; it wounds and scars. (My apologies if that lodges “Nazareth” too firmly in anyone’s ears.) And to what end? That succeeding generations of lovers may also be subject to it, and nothing else. Dryden again, in the translation of Lucretius:

Our hands pull nothing from the parts they strain,
But wander o’er the lovely limbs in vain:
Nor when the Youthful pair more closely joyn,
When hands in hands they lock, and things in thighs they twine;
Just in the raging foam of full desire,
When both press on, both murmur, both expire,
They gripe, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart,
As each wou’d force their way to t’others heart:
In vain; they only cruze about the coast,
For bodies cannot pierce, nor be in bodies lost:
As sure they strive to be, when both engage,
In that tumultuous momentary rage,
So ‘tangled in the Nets of Love they lie,
Till Man dissolves in that excess of joy.
Then, when the gather’d bag has burst its way,
And ebbing tydes the slacken’d nerves betray,
A pause ensues; and Nature nods a while,
Till with recruited rage new Spirits boil;
And then the same vain violence returns,
With flames renew’d th’erected furnace burns.
Agen they each in each other wou’d be lost,
But still by adamantine bars are crost;
All wayes they try, successless all they prove,
To cure the secret sore of lingring love.

Dryden translates delicately.†† I am incompetent in the Latin original, of course. But we know what that “gather’d bag” is, why comes the “ebbing” after it “bursts,” why the “pause” yet again thereafter, and why the “nodding”—till that fresh “recruited rage” sets the thing a-going again. The poem speaks of generation (and generations). “Recruited rage.” I guess this is what Viagra and its like allow for when “Nature nods” for too long a while, let’s impudently say: the conscription again of a “rage” now out of service, now demobbed, as UK military slang used to have it. Yes, demobilized, mustered out, but (lo!) sent in for a fresh (and freshly wearying) tour of duty. Well, “medicine” now allows for that and for the better management—for the faltering among us (as per the often tawdry, cupiditous marketing Pfizer offers up)—of these ebbing and rising tides. Do you find yourself “expiring”? Pfizer—reducing the stuff of myth to pharmaceuticals—stands ready with “flames renew’d” to erect the “burning” “furnace” (for less than four hours). I do wish it weren’t so easy to fall into terrific bathos here. But hasn’t the for-profit medicalization (and preening advertisement) of these love-making matters by Pfizer et al somehow debased our talk about them? Better to stay with Lucretius, Dryden, and Hardy.

Anyhow, A.E. Stallings translates the heart of the same passage as follows (in the 2007 Penguin Classics edition of The Nature of Things):

At last, when loins erupt forth from the gathering desire,
[The lovers] are allowed a brief reprieve from passion’s raging fire.

More colloquial, and, I presume, more exact. And lest anyone doubt the biological particularity of Lucretius, recall, as I’ve said, that this passage, and this section of Book Four, follows fast upon a long discussion, in De Rerum Natura, of the mechanism of human reproduction—of how, in Stalling’s translation, the “seed” is first “agitated” in men with “the onset of adulthood” (Book IV, lines 1036ff.), and of how it then “collects” itself in certain areas of “the groin,” and so on. Lucretian Epicureanism, a “science” in its day, certainly deals in biology. Stallings translates very frankly: “This is what our Venus is,” we read. Or as Robert Frost puts it in an early Lucretian poem of his own—he was a great reader of the old philosopher-poet—”This is love and nothing else is love.”

Richard Dawkins

Sandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus"

I do hope this digression back into Lucretius bears some fruit in reading, again, “Neutral Tones,” a poem of a love gone cold, neutered—from fire into ash; which is to say I hope the digression is neither entirely in bad taste, nor impertinent to Hardy. The common theme? That Love “deceives” and “wrings with wrong.” Not any particular lover, again, but love itself. Call it Venus, call it “seed” “agitated” by “the onset of adulthood,” call it the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, call it (with Whitman) the “procreant urge of the world,” call it what you will, it passes into and through us down the generations, by hook or by crook, quite without “our” peculiar, petty, time-bound interests in view. And to no other end than that it do exactly this: get itself down the generations, with the bodies of lovers as its means, of course. We suffer ourselves to be perpetuated so that our progeny might suffer themselves to be, and so it goes, cost what it may in merely affective and psychological terms (which are moral, and so always merely “local”). Dawkins writes in A River out of Eden, speaking not of Venus, or of agitated seed, or of Whitman’s “procreant urge,” but of the human genome: “There is only the long-term outlook of the river of DNA flowing down through the generations, only temporarily housed in particular bodies, only temporarily sharing a body with companion genes that may be successful or unsuccessful” (my emphasis again). Bear in mind that the man and woman in “Neutral Tones,” let alone Tess of the d’Urbervilles, are such “particular bodies”; and what havoc the “rage” of “love” makes of the latter woman! (Whitman, incidentally, has his easy, Transcendentalist way out of all these time-bound particulars: there really is no death in the world, he assures us.)

But only that long-term outlook of that “river of DNA” (or of that supra-personal “procreant urge of the world“)?—some might ask of Dawkins, on reading the passage just quoted (or of Whitman on reading him). Well, yes, insofar as Dawkins’ limited purposes in this section of the book are concerned. Elsewhere, and in other books, he allows for the possibility of taking the rage and reproductive imperatives of our “selfish gene” in hand, of subordinating them to human purposes, which is say to “cultural” ones.‡ But I haven’t to do with that here, except insofar as Hardy’s poem constitutes, in its way, such a subordination; I mean, except insofar as it offers an unforgettable cultural record—for one man, and for one woman made forever memorable by that smile of hers—of what “love,” in its “rage,” did as it passed into and through the lives of one couple. Namely, it wrung them with wrong. Or take Dawkins elsewhere in the same book: “We—and that means all living things—are survival machines programmed to propagate the digital database that did the programming,” a “database” otherwise known (to speak very whimsically) as “Venus.” Or again: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.” “DNA neither knows nor cares,” Dawkins says. “DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”

What else are the lovers imagined to do in the long passage quoted above from Dryden’s Lucretius? They dance to the (rather imperious) music of Love, and whether for their good or their ill matters not a whit (well, Dryden & Lucretius in this case allow for little to no good at all). And the lovers in “Neutral Tones,” as Hardy gives them to us, stand on the nether (and neuter) side of what love’s passage did to them: beneath a “God-curst sun”; by an ash stripped of its leaves until vernal spring recurs with its own rages (no accident that Tess begins with that dooming scene of May-day dancing); beside “a pond edged with grayish leaves”: burned out and bitter, though, as it happens, still on speaking terms.

That last fact always mitigates, for me anyway, the excessive abjection of the poem. It is as if the pair truly wonder at it all—at how love came, took them up, “deceived” them, wrung them out with wrong, and then set them down mid-winter kicking the ashy leaves of an ash about their ashy boots, the one a tedious riddle, the other bearing the least forgettable smile in all of English poetry.

I find here, if anywhere, some larger truth in Ralph Pite’s ruminations about “Neutral Tones” and its related cluster of poems. Here he is again: “Try as [Hardy] might, resist it as he might, nothing could halt the [dream of love’s] decline. Other poems from this period—such as ‘The Dawn After the Dance‘ and ‘In the Vaulted Way‘—are variants on the same essential situation, confirming that Hardy went through some change of heart, which he could scarcely account for himself, still less explain satisfactorily to anyone else” (my emphasis). The strange unaccountability of love is what I’m after in reading “Neutral Tones,” because that is what the two lovers figured in it seem to be trying to confront—with little to no success, “chidden,” as they (not only the sun) most certainly are; and with words playing between them to no particular end. I think we see the justice in Pite’s observation—assuming the poems in question have anything serious to do with Tryphena—that Hardy never considered his cousin “deceitful” or “wicked,” nor ever felt that he’d been “jilted” by her. No, if we enter “Neutral Tones” into the general testimony as to these matters, it tells us that both its lovers had been jilted, and jilted by “love” itself. That’s the position Hardy takes, and if a detour through Dryden’s Lucretius and Dawkins’ Dawkins makes it any clearer, I’m satisfied.

N.B. For other discussions of Hardy’s poetry within these pages, click here.


I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.
The years-heired feature that can
In curve and voice and eye
Of durance—that is I;
The eternal thing in man,
That heeds no call to die.

†† For the nonce, here is William Ellery Leonard’s 1916 translation of the latter part of the text Englished by Dryden:

At last, with members intertwined, when they
Enjoy the flower of their age, when now
Their bodies have sweet presage of keen joys,
And Venus is about to sow the fields
Of woman, greedily their frames they lock,
And mingle the slaver of their mouths, and breathe
Into each other, pressing teeth on mouths-
Yet to no purpose, since they’re powerless
To rub off aught, or penetrate and pass
With body entire into body—for oft
They seem to strive and struggle thus to do;
So eagerly they cling in Venus’ bonds,
Whilst melt away their members, overcome
By violence of delight. But when at last
Lust, gathered in the thews, hath spent itself,
There come a brief pause in the raging heat-
But then a madness just the same returns
And that old fury visits them again,
When once again they seek and crave to reach
They know not what, all powerless to find
The artifice to subjugate the bane.

The “gather’d bag” a-burst here becomes “Lust, gathered in the thews,” spending itself. Thews, as in O.E.D. sense 3b: “The bodily powers or forces of a man (Latin vires), might, strength, vigour.”

‡ I have in mind these often-quoted words from The Selfish Gene: “It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity 
for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other, nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution. The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight—our capacity to 
simulate the future in imagination—could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves,’ and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Which “tyranny,” again, I associate throughout this entry with the “rage” of “Love” in the larger, and decidedly impersonal, sense Lucretius seems to have in mind. The idea is to understand and manage it.

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