Shades of Gray: A Diachronic Reading of Thomas Hardy's "Neutral Tones"

Article excerpt

History has given names to many ages in the life of the world; ours is the age of words.

--E. J. Phelps, 1889

Richard Chenevix Trench, drawing on Coleridge and Emerson in On the Study of Words, suggested to his Victorian audience that "we are not to look for the poetry which a people may possess only in its poems, or in its poetical customs, traditions, and beliefs. Many a single word also is itself a concentrated poem, having stores of poetical thought and imagery laid up in it." (1) The lack of this sort of diachronic awareness in existing dictionaries was the impetus behind the creation of the New English Dictionary (later the Oxford English Dictionary), which appeared between 1884 and 1928 with the aim of satisfying Trench's view of the dictionary as "an historical monument." (2) Contemporary critic Dennis Taylor describes the 1860s, a period which saw an extensive amount of groundwork being done on the New English Dictionary as "the signal decade of the new philology in England." (3) As a result, Taylor argues, it is not surprising "that the two poets regarded as the Victorian period's greatest 'later' poets began writing serious poetry in the 1860s. Hardy and Hopkins were singularly placed to profit by the excitement and bewilderment of the new language consciousness. One way of explaining their achievement is that they made poetry out of the implications of current philological research" (p. 103).

The focus of this study is the first man named by Taylor, Thomas Hardy. Hardy's profound fascination with philology is well documented in Taylor's Hardy's Literary Language and Victorian Philology, particularly in his chapter entitled "Hardy and the New Philology" (pp. 96-172). Hardy was an avid follower of developments in this field, frequently in contact with OED editor James Murray from the latter's editorial appointment in 1876 onward (Taylor, p. 115). (4) Hardy's first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, (5) first appeared in 1898, and one poem in particular reflects Hardy's keen understanding of and interest in the philology of the day. (6) That poem, the often-anthologized "Neutral Tones," was composed in 1867 (7) and is described by critic F. B. Pinion as "the most remarkable imaginative poem ... ; it is in a class apart." (8) More importantly, however, it "is a grandma's pantry of linguistic or better, philological, delights." (9) Synchronically read, "Neutral Tones" is decidedly straightforward. (10) It describes what Richard Carpenter calls "a personal [moment] ... indefinite in its time and place" (p. 172), as the speaker recalls standing with his former love at the side of a pond in the middle of winter, surrounded by a dead landscape that serves as a metaphor for their withered relationship. Though they exchange both looks and words, in the end, they must both accept that they no longer care for each other. The speaker claims that it is only now that time has passed and other "keen lessons" (l. 13) (11) have been learned that he can look back upon this scene with some sense of perspective. In short, this is a poem very much in the Hardy model, bemoaning the loss of love-but there is more to it than that. Taylor's suggestion that this is, in fact "a poem about 'keen lessons' and riddles" (p. 275) is central to any diachronic reading of the poem, and certainly goes a long way toward pointing to a very self-conscious manipulation of language on Hardy's part. I would argue, however, that Hardy is not simply amusing himself by playing with words. There is also an interrogation of the very act of communication, and a reinforcement, never far from the surface in Hardy's work, of the notion of human passivity in the face of divine manipulation.

Any diachronic examination of Hardy's poetry must begin with the title itself. "Neutral Tones" are identified by Joanna Cullen Brown as "important, recurrent symbols in Hardy's poetry" (12) and, understood in their most basic sense, are simply part of a series of dull colors, neither strong nor positive, like the gray leaves (13) that the narrator describes so dispassionately. …