A comparison of the poets present romantic love in ‘Neutral Tones’ by Thomas Hardy and ‘Winter Swans’ by Owen Sheers
In the lyric poem Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy, the speaker reflects back to a particular moment in their life when they realised that the love had died between them and the person they were in a relationship with. They consider what this moment has meant to them since. Winter Swans describes a couple that are walking through the ‘gulping mud’ alongside a lake in winter. They are ‘silent and apart’. When the swans arrive, the pair stop to watch the birds and their ‘show of tipping unison’. The swans could be seen as reflecting the relationship between the couple. Both poems Neutral Tones and Winter Swans are about the temporal nature of love and the complications and conflicts that arrive in long term relationships. However, whereas in neutral tones, the poet is talking about a couple were not able to regain the love they once had for another, in Winter Swans the poet is exploring the superficial nature of love.
In Neutral tones, the poet uses the motif of draining color to reflect how the love has drained from their relationship. “The sun was white”, “They had fallen from an ash and were grey”, “and a pond edged with greyish leaves”. Here, the repeated use of the colors white and grey are particularly important because they are dull colors which do not have any meaning, pointing to the fact that their relationship was lacking any meaning or color. Interestingly, Winter swans explores the motif of winter weather: The “clouds”, the “days of rain”. Winter is a time when the world is still and dead, when it seems like nothing is growing. Yet it is also a precursor to spring, to renewed life and hope, which we see with the “afternoon light” which marks the change in mood, and the speaker’s perspective of their relationship. In Winter swans, the poet also explores the idea of color. There is a sense in which the end of the relationship is inevitable, until the swan’s arrival “came and stopped us”, and the use of positive images of color following this, imply a rebirth of positive feelings between the pair. “Icebergs of white feather”, the use of the color white suggests purity and positivity, the iceberg suggests a depth of feeling between the couple that we, as onlookers, perhaps cannot see, whilst porcelain is something beautiful, valuable and fragile: to be handles with care, like this relationship. Both poets Hardy and Sheers use form to emphasize their themes.
In Neutral tones, the first and last lines of each stanza rhyme, this rhyme scheme reflects how the memory of a past experience returns to affect the narrator in the present. The indented final line of each stanza slows the pace of the poem by creating a pause, this hints at his sadness that the relationships failed. In Winter Swans the poem is mostly written in tercets, which makes each stanza look unbalanced. The uneven line length and lack of rhyme scheme also contribute to a feeling of disjointedness which reflects the troubled nature of the couple’s relationship. However, frequent enjambment emphasizes its continuity. The final stanza of the poem is a couplet, which shows that they have been reunited as a couple.
Similarly, both poets Hardy and Sheers structure their poems differently to emphasize their respective themes. Whilst in Neutral tones, we see that the poem is structured in a shape that reflects the rhyme scheme, as the last verse repeats the description of the first verse by the pond. This suggests that the speaker’s future ideas about love have been shaped and entrapped by the memory of this failed relationship. In Winter Swans, the narrator and his partner are separated for the first five stanzas, but they reunite in the final two. The swans provide a turning point at the start of stanza three, they’re beautiful and inspirational, in contrast to earlier descriptions of nature as a place of suffering. This reflects how the couple have reached a turning point in their relationship.
To conclude, when taken together, these poems work to emphasize the idea that love is complex, superficial and often involves conflict, but can sometimes last if we are willing to overcome difficult periods. In Neutral Tones the poet presents the ideal of love as something deep and lasting, when in truth it is quickly lost, replaced by boredom and indifference. However, in Winter Swans, the poet sees love as something that can always be reconciled after an argument, in this case the couple are reconciled after seeing a symbol of love: The swans. The swans’ lifelong mating provides the couple with a reminder that love can last and that “rough weather” can be overcome. The difference in perspective may be explained by the poet’s respective contexts. Thomas Hardy was distanced from his society, both geographically and philosophically: as “among the earliest acclaimers of the origin of species”, he had lost his Christian faith. Both forms of distance lent his writings an unparalleled pessimism. Hardy thus depicted the suffering and loneliness of man in an often malevolent and always uncaring universe. However, Owen Sheers is a contemporary poet who grew up in south wales. Much of contemporary poetry draws on postmodern values, and consequently is skeptical about love’s ability to last. Here, Sheers presents relationships as difficult, but through the natural imagery of swans’ lifelong devotion, suggests love between two people can triumph.
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In the lyric poem Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy, the speaker reflects back to a particular moment in their life when they realised that the love had died between them […]