05 January 2017

Neutral Tones

This semester, and last, I assigned--among other things--Thomas Hardy's poem "Neutral Tones" in my intro literature classes. 

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
—They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.
Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
On which lost the more by our love.
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing …

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

Where I live, and where I rode yesterday, can hardly be compared to Hardy's Wessex countryside--which, actually, wa even deader than the love lamented by the speaker of his poem.  Wessex was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom the Danes invaded a millenium before Hardy started writing.  Today it consists of Dorset, where Hardy lived most of his life, and neighboring counties in southern England.

But we are entering our season of "neutral tones":  the incandescent of Fall has burned away, and even the lastflickering and smoldering hues of dying embers have faded away.  Here in New York, we can see some of those "neutral tones" in the trees, even in the light of the sky--and manmade structures:

It wasn't particularly cold, though the temperature was beginning a precipitous drop, propelled by the wind, that would continue through the night and this morning.  So, I was the only cyclist--and one of only a few people--on the waterfront park just south of the Brooklyn Bridge.

I am not lamenting a lost love--or much of anything, really--right now.  I am just tired from the heavy workload I took on during the past few months--and from the election and the ensuing tumult.  All right, maybe I am ruing the relative civility, and concern for the truth-- or, at least, the appearance of those things-- of the past few years.

The other night, I was having a conversation with someone I've come to know a bit during the past few months.  We both agreed that we are now in a completely different world from the one in which we first met:  as I recall, some time late in the summer.  We can see it in the faces of people; most important, we can feel it, we agreed:  the air of resignation and defeat in places like the neighborhood in which I work, and the belligerence (manifested in an increasing number of attacks against people who are, or look like, Muslims, LGBT people or anyone Trump scorned or mocked) in other places.  

"But you know, we created all of that.  Everyone did.  Just as Americans created the Soviet Union as much as those folks in the Kremlin did."

I reflected on that observation as I stopped along the Brooklyn waterfront.  Obviously, humans created that bridge--which I love.  But we also made the "neutral tones" of that sky and the trees.  The hues were those of winter until we made them neutral--when, as in Hardy's poem, love is lost or, worse, abandoned. 

I had another insight, for whatever it's worth, about why Christian (white ones, anyway) and Jewish fundamentalists voted for Trump.  He famously declared climate change a "hoax".  (His unique spin, of course, was to attribute the ruse to the Chinese.) The religious folk might not like the fact that he made much of his fortune from casinos and other unsavory businesses, and that he's been married three times--or that his views on abortion are those of the last person who discussed the issue with him.  But what he said about climate change aligns completely with the most fundamental tenet of Abrahamic religions (as I understand them, anyway):  that of God's sovereignty.  That notion is challenged, to say the least, if you believe that human-generated pollution can cause a rise in sea levels and average temperatures, and can wipe out entire species. 

And to think that Trump came from the same city I inhabit!

Then again, I don't think he ever took a bike ride along the Brooklyn waterfront on a winter afternoon--and saw what I saw.


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  2. Are you teaching them Hardy poems 'cos he was a keen cyclist? I preferred his novels...

  3. Coline--OK, I confess, that's one reason I teach Hardy poems. Also, it's difficult to include one of his novels (or one of just about any of his peers) in a one-semester intro to lit course.

    As a poet, I admit that he wasn't a ground-breaker. But he did have a sensibility that allowed readers to see the shades and shadows, as opposed to only the light and darkness, of everything. That, I believe, made his novels immortal and his poems, if nothing else, worthwhile.