The poems under study are Neutral Tones (“NT”) and I Look Into My Glass (“Glass”). Both poems focus on loss of a different kind: “Glass” expresses the loss of Hardy’s youth; “NT” focuses on the death of Hardy’s estranged wife, it grieves the loss of their love. Although the losses are different, both poems use the vehicle of time to express Hardy’s sadness, “Glass” through the passage of a day and “NT” through the passage of the seasons.
In “Glass”, the verbs cleverly highlight the passage of time and the pain of the loss of Hardy’s youth. In the first two lines, “look” and “view” are both in the present tense: Hardy is both literally looking into his mirror and figuratively looking at himself, being both retrospective and introspective. However, with the sight of his aging skin, the tense quickly changes to the conditional. Hardy wishes that his heart were as “thin” as his “wasting skin”. He wishes his heart weren’t so full of feeling and passion, that he had the moderate, dispassionate feelings of an old man; for then it would not hurt if someone did not reciprocate his feelings. In the final stanza, he reverts to the present tense, and the verbs he uses here highlight both his pain and his passivity. Time, personified, is the aggressor and is robbing him of his physical youth. The assonance in the last stanza, emphasises the aggression of time, as does the sudden quickening of pace in the last two lines and the use of active verbs (“shakes”, “throbbings”).
Hardy feels lonely, unloved and slightly betrayed by the “hearts grown cold to me”. If his heart were not so full of passion, then he could approach old age and death without distress, in a calm fashion. He grieves that this is not the case and that, though his body is old, he still has the feelings of a young man. He thinks time has been mischievous by taking away his youthful looks whilst retaining all his feelings. The poem is dominated by contrasting images of eve and noon, inward youth and external decay. He compares his body to the end of a day, whereas his emotions are at the meridian. Passion, which is at its zenith, seems to shake the “fragile frame” of the body. Hardy projects the image of a person suffering passively at the hands of others through phrases such as “hearts grown cold to me” and “Time, to make me grieve”.
In “NT” Hardy uses the seasons to convey time. He begins by describing winter in the past tense. He describes it as dull, grey and lifeless. All of this is a metaphor for the aftermath of his relationship with his wife, describing the lack of feeling between them, where once there had been joy and warmth. He talks of “the starving sod”, inferring that there is no sustenance, warmth or comfort. His use of words, such as “fallen” and “starving” highlight the death of the love that once existed between them. Hardy deliberately doesn’t describe his wife in the first stanza, preferring, instead, to describe the bleakness of the scene. This bleakness is also emphasised by the lack of movement and energy seen throughout this stanza. He then goes on to describes his wife’s eyes as cold, uninterested, bored and perhaps a little perplexed (as to the fact that she had ever loved Hardy). They passed some social niceities between them but these words sounded even more hollow because of the lack of warmth, love and intimacy that had once existed between them. Hardy then goes onto to describe his wife’s smile as dead, but even that dead smile disappeared, to be replaced by a bitter rictus grin. Hardy is haunted by the image of his wife’s face, silhouetted by a cold, harsh sun, a stark tree and a desolate pond edged with the grey leaves of the ash, a tree which symbolises sacrifice. The title of the poem implies that Hardy can speak of his wife in a neutral voice because there are no feelings there, only emptiness. It also refers to the fact that they just exchanged banalities and didn’t have a full-on row, However, Hardy is not neutral. He is very negative and embittered by the experience, saying “that love deceives”. Now, every time Hardy feels unloved, wronged or hurt, he sees his wife’s face by the pond. His bitterness is further emphasised by the use of the phrase “God curst sun”, with its short, harsh sounds. The overall impression of Hardy’s dramatic monologue is of decay and the loss of love and vitality.
Hardy coveys grief in both of these poems using the passage of time and many other methods (some analysed above). “Glass” is thoughtful and there is rather a slow pace, which is emphasised by the regular rhyme scheme and numerous punctuations. “NT” is not as languid in pace and has a “choppier”, more aggressive tone. Strongly negative words, such as “starving”, “deadest”, “die”, “deceives”, “wrong”, “God curst” and “ominous” dominate. The main difference to me is that, in “Glass”, he comes across as sad, full of lamentation and suffering but in a passive, almost accepting fashion. In “NT”, he comes across as angry, hurt and bitter. Whilst he cannot have done anything to stop or slow down the passage of time and the aging of his body, one wonders what he did to his wife to make her feel such antipathy and bitterness towards him. In “Glass”, Hardy is almost harking back to the good old days, when he was young in body and heart. In “NT”, it is as if there were no good old days (when obviously he was once in love with his wife, otherwise he wouldn’t have married her and wouldn’t have felt so bitter towards her- the love/hate oxymoron.) It is as if he wishes those days had never been, that he had never married. One poem is full of sadness and regret, the other full of anger and pain. All of these feelings are manifestations of grief.
They say grief moves through denial (which Hardy does in the first stanza of “NT” by deliberately not talking about his wife), to anger, pain, acceptance and sadness. Hardy knows aging is inevitable but grieves the effect time is having on his body. Hardy grieves the relationship he had with his wife but was an active participant in the relationship; he might well be cursing himself for having married her in the first place, thinking he could have saved himself the pain.