The Breakdown of a Relationship: A Comparison of ‘Neutral Tones’ and ‘Modern Love’

The breakdown of a relationship is presented in many ways throughout both ‘Neutral Tones’ by Thomas Hardy and ‘Modern Love’ by George Meredith. For example, they both explore themes of memory, and loss (of love). I will be exploring and comparing both poems to each other in this essay.

Firstly, the poem ‘Neutral Tones’ explores themes of loss and almost a mourning of love as the first three stanzas focus on a memory in which the couple are stood by a pond. The final stanza is also a reflection and a reminiscence of what had been and the lasting power of that memory. For example, ‘Since then, keen lessons that love deceives’ This quote in this final stanza implies that time has moved on since the beginning of the poem and everything the reader has read until this stanza has been in the past. This quote also shows that the breakdown of the relationship has had a long lasting effect on him as he is still reflective upon it, and it emphasizes the lasting power of his memory and the impact it has had on him all this time.

The imagery ‘Neutral Tones’ explores is based on the idea of pathetic fallacy, as the poem is set in the winter where natural life does not progress on further. Hardy used different aspects of nature to convey his view on marriage and relationships, for instance, he used the image of a pond, but in this poem, the pond has no movement which can suggest how the relationship is not going anywhere. Furthermore, the sun, which usually has connotations of warmth and brightness, here it is displayed as ‘white’ and seemingly deprived of its ability to warm and nurture those around it. The leaves in the poem are decaying just like the relationship, they are grey like the color has been drained from them, hence the name ‘Neutral Tones’ for the poem which would have been the poet’s intention. Finally, the ash in the poem could symbolize death and it could remind the reader of Hardy’s relationship which looks like it has burned out a long time ago, this could also suggest the death of the relationship.

However, the poem ‘Modern Love’ explores themes of depression and suffering as neither of them want to be in the marriage anymore but they feel it would be worse to get a divorce because of the society they were living in at the time, i.e. Victorian, where divorce would have been frowned upon as marriage was seen as a sacrament to God (people were also incredibly religious back in the 19th century) and breaking that sacrament would have been like breaking your promise to God and disobeying his wishes, as it would have been thought that two people were together because of God and his plans for each individual. The breakdown of the marriage is seen in the first line where it is said that ‘By this he knew she wept with waking eyes’ this could imply that the husband is very much aware of his wife’s pain and sadness, ‘that, at his hand’s light quiver by her head’ could suggest the fact that because the husbands hand is quivering he is puzzled or frightened and also upset just like his wife. In the second stanza it is said that the wife is ‘dreadfully venomous’ to her husband, this could emphasize the fact that their relationship is toxic and becomes intoxicated because they are no good for each other and that they don’t bring out the best in one another, the more they stay the more it could poison each other, perhaps foreshadowing the death of their relationship in the end, ‘as the sword that severs all’, which would be considered divorce.

In the poem ‘Neutral Tones’ the rhythmic pattern of the poem is not consistent which could emphasize the uncomfortable feelings of the relationship and the eventual breakdown of it. The fourth stanza is different to the other stanzas as it is the last one and because it is seen as a distant memory. The third line is broken up which could imply the poets struggle to get through the thoughts of his painful memory smoothly and as neutral as his poem suggests. The poem is also written in quatrains which is the most simplistic and straightforward grouping of sets of four lines, it is also one of the most recognizable. Thomas Hardy could have used the most simplistic grouping of sets to suggest how simple and plain his relationship was.

On the other hand, Meredith’s poem ‘Modern Love’ is one of his longest works and is a sixteen-line sonnet compared to the traditional fourteen line sonnets. The poem provides an appropriate structure for contradictory feelings which would be exchanged between the couple, as well as occasional interconnected emotions too. The sixteen-line instead of the usual fourteen lined sonnet could have perhaps been deliberately written in this way to emphasize the long, painful marriage the couple went through compared to a traditional marriage where the couple are both happy with each other. The couple try to live through the idea of a ‘modern love’ marriage whereby they privately live in agony so long as to not upset society and its expectations. Meredith conveys ‘modern love’ as an empty, painful commitment which is reviewed by society, no matter what the true feelings behind closed doors are. Throughout history, ‘modern love’ has been presented as a sort of stability for social status, instead of feelings and expression.

In conclusion, both poems’ final meanings are that relationships do not go anywhere further from heartbreak, unless you do not go through marriage living it for anyone else other than you and your partner, and not society’s expectations of you and what a ‘perfect’ marriage should be. ‘Neutral Tones’ particularly suggests how relationships are not full of color and brightness like they are made out to be, but are in fact quite grey and washed out. However, this could be biased based on the poets own personal experiences.