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Neutral Tones

General Theme

The poet is speaking of lost love, creating an atmosphere of disappointment and apathy. One key device is pathetic fallacy.


Stanza One

l. 1: Poet and partner are standing side by side on a winter day, 'winter' being used to symbolize darkness, death and endings, and also coldness, all of which can relate to this relationship.

l. 2: The sun is 'white', not 'yellow', itself in a neutral colour, as though it has been told off by God. This is interesting because 'white' is usually associated with brightness, purity, innocence and yet here it seems drained of colour instead. Assonance between lines in 'winter' and 'chidden' links the cold and deathly atmosphere to the punishment of this scene.

l. 3: 'Starving sod' personifies the earth as starving for a stable relationship, or starving for love, like the speaker. Alliteration and in 'leaves lay' create a gentle, wilting sound, mirroring their flat and stagnant relationship. 'A few' suggests disappointed expectations or something which isn't particularly grand or impressive - like this neutral scene.

l. 4: 'Grey' reflects the title neutral - things which are unimpressive, unimportant, impassionate, the opposite of love. An ash tree is perhaps used because of the connotations of the word 'ash', something burnt and left over like expectations and the remnants of their relationships.


Stanza Two

ll. 5-6: In these lines the speaker suggests that their relationship is old, 'tedious' suggests dullness and 'riddles' suggests complex questions which the speaker and the lover can no longer be bothered to solve, or try to fix. Enjambment and assonance creates a bridge between the lines, as though they also are roving over a boundary.

l. 7: 'Some' again suggests lack of importance and specificity (consider the lack of specific count nouns in the poem), as though the poet can't even bother to remember how many there were. 'Played' and 'to and fro' suggest a careless and an inconsequentiality to what they are talking about.

l. 8: They are talking, it transpires, about which of them was less fortunate in their relationship, which turns on its head the idea that relationships bring gains. This is somewhat ironic or an oxymoron when considering a general idea of a relationship.  It may also echo Ophelia's protest in Hamlet that at the end of her and Hamlet's tragic relationship, she was 'the more deceived' by the idea that they may once have been in love.


Stanza Three

ll. 9-10: 'Deadest thing' personifies the relationship at its end, whilst 'deadest' and 'alive' present an oxymoronic phrase, stating that if her smile were any deader, it wouldn't be alive. Her smile is dying, and yet it seemed so dead already that he is almost surprised that it can still die. The poet uses this oxymoron to show his surprise, and to exaggerate how dead her smile is, as she is no longer interested in the relationship.

ll. 11-12: 'Grin' is ironic and relates to the smile, which is now bitter, assonance between 'grin' and 'bitter' linking the two to create a perverse poeticism in the flattened disappointment. It also suggests a mask or facade which she is putting on despite her emotions. He compares this smile to a bird. Birds often are used to symbolize the future - an 'ominous' bird suggests something bad about to happen. Ellipsis (...) suggests the dark times to come, as though hinting about the future.


Stanza Four

The speaker therefore has learned a lesson from this relationship, that love deceives, and he now personifies this lesson in this image of this scene. Assonance and alliteration throughout the lines, linking 'keen' and 'deceives', showing the depth of deceptions', and then 'wrings with wrong.' 'Wrings' also shows how destructive this relationship was for him.

The poet in the last two lines lists the qualities of the scene. 'the God curst sun' strengthens the 'chidden' sun of the first line, here suggesting that it is divinely ordained to be terrible. Lack of certain number of significant number with 'a tree' and 'a pond', as though he can't even properly remember the scene. Culminates with the 'grayish', which aptly shows the increased lack of certainty or any real presence in this scene, so un-coloured it is barely there, emphasizing the neutrality and lack of life in the scene. The poem has a yclical structure, again emphasizing lack of life or progression.



  • Very simple quatrain patterns.

  • Rhyme scheme is abba, showing inevitability as he is looking back on his memories.

  • Rhythms of the poem are unstable but often sing-song, very poetically neutral - no strong rhythm but also no striking free verse.

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