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Meter and Context: Hardy's "Neutral Tones"

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 51, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 81-97 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0004

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W. King's 1925 comment, that Thomas Hardy's well-known 1867 poem, "Neutral Tones," was distinguished by "a kind of acrid clarity in both thought and style," led Claire Senior to reply that, nonetheless, "few readers today would praise Hardy for clarity." This exchange might suggest why "Neutral Tones" continues to be an intriguing poem, since it highlights a paradoxical sense that the poem's effectiveness derives from the expressive relation between the dismal, matter-of-fact aura of its mundane scene, and the contrary perception that there is much within and outside the poem, that is withheld, elided, obscure. The reading offered in this article is exercised, like that of many critics and biographers since King, by a sense of the complex generative ratio between what is clear and singular, though haunting about the poem, and all that is reticent, or enigmatic—about its speaker, its situation, and the young poet who wrote it.

What this piece seeks primarily to do, though, is to approach the interlocking affective, subjective, and biographical dimensions of the poem through a close, sustained, examination of its meter. The main emphasis is on describing how the poem's distinctive modernity surfaces in its registration of disillusion, triumphantly controlled and evident at the level of intonation as well as theme. The reading seeks to show how far the originality of the poem is essentially a matter of voice and tone, of micro-enactments and expressive disjunctions that register the fluctuations and refluxes of the speaker's stalled feeling and self-awareness. A related biographical suggestion is that the very success of the poem, premised as it was on an inscription of affective failure and contingency, might have been discomfiting for the young Hardy who would shortly after 1867 abandon for an indefinite time his main dedication to poetry. Linda Shires has described the definitively post-Romantic aesthetic scoped in the poem. However, one wonders (to put it no more strongly) if Hardy at this time was personally equipped to pursue this kind of inspiration. He was, after all, a young man ardent about poetry and romance, as well as wily, gifted and ambitious. However, he was also socially insecure, depressive, hyper-sensitive, and self-doubting, and the irony would not have been lost on him that his muse in this first great poem was so relentlessly unsparing, dissociative, and agnostic.

Of course, to say that "Neutral Tones" reveals Hardy's poetic sensibility is not to confuse the poem's speaker with Hardy himself. J.M.P. Gleeson has usefully counseled critics against such conflations, while emphasizing that Hardy gains by exploiting two overlapping kinds of tension: firstly, that between the biographical and poetic selves, and secondly, that between Romantic and Modernist lyrical modes. In the metrical reading that follows, the sense of Hardy as a poet between times is evident not merely in the specific themes, or temporal problematic, of the poem itself, but also rhythmically speaking, in a dynamic derangement of pattern that is the means by which the specifically ungrounded, disjunctive, and ironic Hardyan voice emerges against nineteenth-century precedents. The well-known analogy drawn in the Life between a strategic "irregularity" in meter, and that of Gothic architecture was, it was worth remembering, one drawn in early years with a certain defensiveness. Through it, Hardy wrote, he "fortified himself" against the undermining strictures of those for whom "metrical pauses, and reversed beats" were the marks of poetic incompetence, rather than the necessary resources of a poetry that sought "spontaneity," and that was more concerned with "stress than . . . syllable, poetic texture rather than poetic veneer." This accords with Dennis Taylor's central perception that Hardy's virtuosity in diverse metres and stanzaic forms was related to the "dialectic" between "the abstract nature of metrical form" and "spoken language."

In this connection, John Bayley's memorably takes "Neutral Tones" as a poem that registers the "Hardeyan law of separation," whereby formal elements resist synthesis, standing outside or alongside each other. Bayley writes of the "crumbling" of intonation in the poem, to suggest how the lines obey, too, the operative principle of effective disconnection. Other critics have persuasively, if often passingly, explored the contributions...

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