Thomas hardy neutral tones analysis summary poem Maura Dooley letters from Yorkshire analysis summary poem

Comparing love poetry: Thomas Hardy’s ‘Neutral Tones’ & Maura Dooley’s ‘Letters from Yorkshire’

(This post contains two detailed videos on the topic.)

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy says he’s accustomed to the thought of “poetry being the food of love”, only to be met with Lizzy Bennett’s characteristic riposte – 

“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may [be]. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

(Translated into Modern English, this means:

Poetry is only palatable to lovers in a healthy relationship, because anything that adds to what is already strong can only make it better. But if we’re talking about fleeting affections, then all you need is one good poem to make someone see their infatuation for what it really is.) 

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As usual, our homegirl Lizzy B is right. While none can deny that poetry is one of the best instruments of romantic expression, it often does more to repel than to convert the unmoved.

After all, rhymes are only charming if you find the rhymer charming to begin with. 

Otherwise, it’s just downright creepy. 

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Be that as it may, love has always been one of the most important and popular themes in poetry, largely because it’s so effective in reflecting the intricacies of our other emotions, like grief, anger and joy.

We tend to feel our strongest emotions when we’re in love or out of love, and strong emotions are the bread and butter of poetry.

‘Love’, by the way, doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic or sexual – fraternal, familial, spiritual or even solipsistic love can often inspire equally intensive feelings. 

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In this post, though, let’s take the contrarian route and read two poems about love that don’t seem to convey particularly strong emotions.

Now that’s not to say these aren’t thematically ‘emotional’ poems, but the way these poets go about conveying love is more subtle, more understated, and perhaps – all the more effective for that approach. 

They are Thomas Hardy’s ‘Neutral Tones’ (1898) and Maura Dooley’s ‘Letters from Yorkshire’ (2000), which also happen to be set texts on the AQA GCSE English Literature Paper 2 poetry syllabus. 

Introducing Hardy and Dooley 

Engaging with Hardy is no cheery endeavour, so if you’re looking for a spot of light lunchtime reading, don’t hit him up.

This is especially so when it comes to his prose, many of which convey a grim pessimism about the machinations of fate, and how humans are often at the mercy of forces beyond our control. 

Some of his most famous novels include Tess of the d’Urbevilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895), the latter which was so widely panned at the time of publication it deterred Hardy from ever writing another novel in his lifetime, and marked his complete shift to poetry thereafter.

His novels were rejected by contemporaries largely because they openly dealt with ‘sensitive’ topics such as sexuality and religion, as well as challenged the status quo of Victorian mores and class structures – both of which Hardy viewed with contempt. 

Thomas hardy biography quick facts

In many ways, Hardy was a maverick and a visionary for his time, being someone who held agnostic attitudes towards the idea of an omnipotent, benevolent God in a period when the Judeo-Christian model was the understood worldview, and who flouted social niceties to ask uncomfortable questions about the supposed ‘superiority’ of Western values (especially after WWI). 

Indeed, the reference to a “God curst sun” in “Neutral Tones” is just one example reflecting his doubts about this notion of a kind theistic agent, who somehow never seems to appear when humans need him. 

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Maura Dooley, on the other hand, is a contemporary poet and professor, who currently teaches Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. She began her career as an arts administrator at the Arvon Foundation, a UK NGO which offers residential writing retreats for established and aspiring writers. 

Photo credits: Goldsmiths Press

She was then Literature Officer at London’s Southbank Centre, and in addition to her contributions to poetry, is also actively involved in film and theatre.

Since the publication of her first poetry volume in 1986, Dooley has enjoyed widespread acclaim within the United Kingdom, having won the Eric Gregory Award for poets under the age of 30 in 1987, and been shortlisted twice for both the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. 

For detailed video lectures on each poem, you can find them at the end of each section below. 

Reading ‘Neutral Tones’ (1898) by Thomas Hardy: late Victorian bleakness 

Thomas hardy neutral tones analysis summary poem quotes

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.

The first thing to note about the poem is its title – ‘Neutral Tones’.

As a melancholic lyric about the loss of affection with the passage of time, it seems a little strange that the title should allude to a neutral palette, as opposed to a colder hue which most would associate with sadness.

But to feel neutral about something is to not feel much of anything at all, and in the context of love, this means apathy, which ironically hurts more than negative emotions like hatred or bitterness.

The absence of colour signals a lack of feeling, and in turn, conveys the fading away of love. The only tones Hardy alludes to in the poem are white and gray (“the sun was white”, “grayish leaves”), both of which create a muted, monochromatic scheme that establishes the speaker’s mood, and reminds one of a barren environment wherein no life, growth or love can be found. 

One of the most remarkable things about the poem is Hardy’s ability to approximate rawness of sentiment within a tightly controlled form.

Despite the seeming regularity of a four-quatrain structure, the poem – when read aloud – flows in a natural, elegiac manner. This naturalness is achieved through the spontaneous interplay of iambs and anapests, subtle variation in meter, as well as diversity in rhyme

At first reading, what’s most apparent is probably the presence of the first three envelope stanzas (i.e. use of the ABBA CDDC EFFE enclosed rhyme scheme), followed by the identical end rhymes in the final stanza (GGGG). Closer inspection, however, reveals that there are also eye rhymes and internal rhymes lurking within, which reduces the sort of stiltedness one would usually feel from reading a rhyme-heavy poem. 

The only example of eye rhyme in this poem is “rove/love”, which appear in lines 5 and 8 respectively –

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

It’s perhaps no coincidence that one half of the eye rhyme pair – “rove” – comes at the end of a line that describes the “eyes” of the speaker’s ex-lover, and specifically, how the way she (let’s assume the addressee is a ‘she’ for purposes of distinction) looks at him after their breakup is marked by a clear disinterest, as if her eyes were skimming “over tedious riddles of years ago” (a reference to jokes they had shared in the past, which now do not interest her at all).

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More than just an example of subliminal wordplay, the “rove/love” eye rhyme also carries a symbolic message: despite the two’s physical reunion by the pond and their reminder of a shared experience (reinforced by the visual likeness of “rove” and “love”), they are now two separate individuals who harbour different feelings about their past, and this reality is borne out by the sudden, sonic misalignment between the ‘o’ and ‘uh’ sounds of “rove” and “love”. (Interestingly, “rove” rhymes better with “loathe” (meaning hate) than “love”.)

The idea of “roving eyes” also suggests unfaithfulness, presumably on the ex-lover’s part, which could have been a possible cause of their estrangement. 

There are lots of internal rhymes in this poem, but perhaps the one that lends itself most to the identity of a heartbroken, victimised, speaker is the “thing” (line 9), “a-wing” (line 12) and “wrings” (line 14) group. Together, the lines in which they appear are – 

“The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing” (line 9) 

“Like an ominous bird a-wing…” (line 12) 

“And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face” (line 14) 

The key sentiment here hinges on the word “ominous”.

While the bird that’s about to fly off (“a-wing”) may symbolise the departure of a lover, the rhyme that couples this “bird a-wing” with the reference to “the deadest thing” and the verb “wrings” serves up a more macabre image.

“Wring” means ‘to twist’, or the act of breaking an animal’s neck by twisting it with force, and so instead of a flying bird, we are reminded of a dead one – killed in a violent act.

This could imply that the ex-lover’s abandonment of their relationship was a cruel ‘twist’ of fate, and had left the speaker in an emotionally deadened state from which he’s not quite recovered despite the passing of time.

The impression of a past hurt that’s carried into the present is conveyed through the ‘carried over’ rhyme word – “wrings” – from stanza three to four, which fits into the fabric of memory that undergirds the poem. 

But we see other internal rhymes scattered throughout the poem, too, which include “day” (1), “lay” (3), “gray” (4), “played” (7); “alive” (10) and “die” (10); “wrong” (14) and pond” (16).

Overall, this haphazard ‘sprinkling’ of rhymes strengthens the impression of mental echoes, as the speaker recalls throughout this poem “that winter day” when he realised that there is no hope left for any rekindling of their relationship.

Specifically, the line “alive enough to have strength to die” is worth special comment, as the internal rhyme of “alive/die” is made ironic by the paradoxical nature of the claim.

The speaker notes that “the smile on [his ex-lover’s] mouth” – fake and ‘dead’, as it were – was so animated (“alive enough”), it had ceased to be anything but genuine.

To contrive such a smile, of course, is also an indication that she no longer feels any love or affection for the speaker, and so her ‘lively’ smile only conveys for him a dearth of emotions, and as such, symbolises the death of any remaining hope he may have felt about their relationship.

women tell all fake smile GIF by The Bachelor

Simply put, a smile too “alive” is really just a sign that true emotions have ‘died’, which is an idea that cuts against the sonic harmony of this internal rhyme. 

Notwithstanding the regulated nature of the form, which is composed of four quatrains, Hardy loosens up the tightness of his stanzas by varying his use of enjambment and caesura.

It’s also worth noting that the final stanza echoes the first, as the speaker’s memory of a wistful, disappointing reunion comes full circle, and does so in a haunting manner.

The lines in these echoing stanzas are choppier than the ‘sandwiched’ stanzas (i.e. stanzas two and three), which look back on the incident and include lines that spill over into the next. 

This contrast between mid-stopped and end-stopped lines for the present moment and run-on lines for the past event emphasises the speaker’s emotional brokenness as he recalls that day, but also establishes a sense of sobering acceptance of reality, as he trots out a series of objects that he associates with his memory of her “face” – the white, “God curst sun”, the “pond”, the “grayish leaves” – which are now the only identifiable traces left of their bond.

There’s no doubt that this is an intensely sad poem, and it is made doubly so by a strong sense of suppressed despair and helpless resignation, as we see the speaker ‘bottling up’ his emotions within the four stanzas, as if each neatly stacked quatrain functions like a receptacle of feeling and memory.

But real emotions will out, hence the sustained tension between enjambed and end-stopped lines, and those glimmers of spontaneous rhymes which surface amidst the poem’s overall uniformity.

Check out my video on this poem here:

Reading ‘Letters from Yorkshire’ by Maura Dooley: 21st century love

maura Dooley letters from Yorkshire analysis summary poem quotes

In February, digging his garden, planting potatoes,
he saw the first lapwings return and came
indoors to write to me, his knuckles singing

as they reddened in the warmth.
It’s not romance, simply how things are.
You out there, in the cold, seeing the seasons

turning, me with my heartful of headlines
feeding words onto a blank screen.
Is your life more real because you dig and sow?

You wouldn’t say so, breaking ice on a waterbutt,
clearing a path through snow. Still, it’s you
who sends me word of that other world

pouring air and light into an envelope. So that
at night, watching the same news in different houses,
our souls tap out messages across the icy miles.

Unlike Hardy’s poem, Dooley’s ‘Letters from Yorkshire’ is hopeful about the possibility of mutual connection, and suggests that physical distance does not imply emotional detachment.

If anything, perhaps the two strengthen each other.

Of course, Dooley’s poem was published more than a century after Hardy’s, when communication has been made much more accessible by technological advancement.

In ‘Letters’, it is implied that the speaker and “you” – her correspondent – are at the least pen pals, and at the most pen pals with more than a tinge of tendresse for each other. 

Yet the speaker insists, somewhat apophatically, that “It’s not romance, simply how things are” between them. She seems to imply that they share a platonic relationship, albeit one nourished by the magic of words and fortified by the charm of distance.

There’s an overarching motif of nourishment in the poem, which shows up in the references to “planting potatoes”, “feeding words onto a blank screen” and “pouring air and light into an envelope”.

Set against a wintry context (“In February… You out there, in the cold”), this imagery of growth sharpens the contrast between activity and stasis, which in turn suggests that a certain energy and passion fuel their relationship despite the odds.

For all the lack of physical intimacy between the characters in Dooley’s poem, then, their affections are nonetheless shown to be mutual and ‘alive’, whereas the in-person reunion in ‘Neutral Tones’ only calcifies the ‘deadened’ emotions between two past lovers. 

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One of the ways Dooley bridges the realms of connection and distance in this poem is through the use of cross-stanzaic enjambment – 

“… his knuckles singing
as they reddened in the warmth.” (lines 4-5)

“… seeing the seasons

turning, me with my heartful of headlines
Feeding words onto a blank screen.” (lines 6-8) 

“… Still, it’s you
Who sends me word of that other world

Pouring air and light into an envelope.” (lines 11-13) 

With each swivel into a new tercet, these lines enact through the crossing over of a formal gulf the possibility of connection through words, while the ‘white’ buffer between stanzas could be a visual reminder of the “path through snow” alluded to in line 11 (but their act of writing letters to each other is perhaps a symbolic “clearing” of this path.)

The ‘spillover’ effect created by the run-on between “knuckles singing” and “as they reddened” hints at the man’s need to pause, breathe and recompose before he turns from laborious work to letter-writing; the gap between “seasons” and “turning” is a wonderful literalisation of that pivot from winter to spring; while the travelling over from “other world” to “pouring air and light into an envelope” crystallises the motif of verbal connection.

It’s such an elegant way to synergise words and spaces, and to show that meaning doesn’t always have to come from what’s explicitly stated or immediately visible (which also applies to love). 

Another observation to note is the cluster of internal rhymes in the latter half of the poem.

Strictly speaking, this begins in line 6 with the word “cold”, which isn’t echoed until the arrival of “sow” at the end of line 9 – “Is your life more real because you dig and sow?”

Thereafter, the ‘o’ sound cascades into the following lines: 

“You wouldn’t say so,…
Clearing a path through snow….” (lines 10-11) 

“Pouring air and light into an envelope. So that” (line 13) 

“Our souls tap out messages across the icy miles.” (line 15) 

What are we to make of this gradual increase in rhyme?

One possible reading is to see it as a reflection of the speaker and the man’s growing connection, which is made stronger with each letter or message they send each other.

It’s interesting to consider that what he “sows” isn’t just the seeds in his garden, but the words that carry “air and light” to the speaker, who is here chremamorphisised into a plant which requires photosynthesis to blossom and survive.

This also seems to imply that the speaker is in a passive, stationary position (plants can’t move), as that her survival is at least in part reliant on his provision of nourishing words.

Is she, then, suggesting that he has the upper hand in their relationship?

This is ambiguous, but a point to consider nonetheless.

Despite the logistical challenges posed by snow, their verbal exchanges bring their “souls” closer together, as the poem ends with the vignette of both characters moving in perfect synchrony – the two “watching the same news” and “tap[ping] out messages” to the other.

Romance or no romance, then, the speaker suggests that he completes and complements her existence, being that important someone who “sends me word of that other world”.

The half rhyme of “word” and “world” is also striking for the words’ lexical similarity, and at the risk of seem like I’m stretching it a bit far, it’s perhaps worth considering that “word” is one “l” away from “world”, which is not unlike the speaker, who is always one letter – here in the sense of correspondence, not the alphabet – away from her pen pal’s world. 

Part of what gives this poem its energy is the prevalence of gerunds – verbs with the “-ing” suffix which indicates continuing action. There are no gerunds in “Neutral Tones”, by the way, which is apt given the impression of lifelessness that pervades Hardy’s poem.

In “Letters”, however, the many gerunds seem to at once suggest the revival of life as winter morphs into spring (“seeing the seasons turning”), and the ceaselessness of verbal activity and emotional engagement in spite of external stasis.

stop motion writing GIF by Julie Smith Schneider

The poem glides along a continuum of movement, as his “digging” of gardens and “planting” of potatoes transition to “clearing” of paths and “pouring” of words into letters.

The resulting message, then, is the association of love with labour, whether that love be platonic or romantic, and the labour be manual or scribal.

And so it’s equally possible to see this poem as a celebration of writing as a continual, collaborative process, and a process which relies on energies and feelings akin to those of two people in love.

A life and love conducted through words is no less “real” than one grounded in physical proximity, and is as strong a testament to passion as other forms of human work and relationship.

If we consider Dooley’s professional career as a lifelong writer and creative writing professor, this interpretation would seem to hold even more weight.

Check out my video on this poem here: 

  

To read my analysis of other poems, check out my posts below: 

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