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    “Neutral tones” by Thomas Hardy and “Sonnet XVIII” by William Shakespeare Essay

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    William Shakespeare’s poem “Shall I compare thee to a summers day?” or “Sonnet XVIII” as it is commonly referred to was composed at the end of the sixteenth century in the renaissance period. It is an Elizabethan love sonnet. In this era, the people had a taste for witty poems with a common stance for the lover to woo his mistress. Thomas Hardy’s poem “Neutral Tones” was in contrast written on a later date during the Victorian era. Although the poems were written in very different time periods, they both share a similar relevance to their conception of love. Both poems are focused on love as their subject matter throughout, although this does not mean that they are alike in structure, form or style. In fact the opposite is true as the two poems contrast in their portrayal of love.

    Shakespeare’s poem “Sonnet XVIII” is in fact a sonnet comprising of fourteen iambic pentameter decasyllabic lines which are divided into three quatrains and one rhyming couplet. Hardy’s poem, in contrast, is written in four by four line stanzas. However both poems have a regular rhyming scheme, Shakespeare’s quatrains have alternate coupling rhymes contrasted to ABBA rhyming scheme, which has a definite end to each stanza, just like the end to the relationship.

    “Sonnet XVIII” uses positive language and is principally based around summer imagery, which gives a sense of a flourishing, prosperous relationship, in contrast with “Neutral Tones” which uses negative tones and winter imagery for Hardy to discuss his love affair with his mistress that appears to be a more than static relationship. The vowels used by both authors are somewhat significant to their portrayal of how their relationships unfolded.

    Shakespeare uses majorily sharp vowels -e, i, – as an indication to his perfect love whereas Hardy uses softer, more dragging vowels -a, o, u, – along with soft feminine rhymes, which provides a mood of melancholy and wistfulness and tells the reader that the love has gone from his mistress and he. A very interesting point in comparing these two poems is that Shakespeare’s poem is written in the present tense and is a poetic argument unfolding in front of us, whereas Hardy’s poem is in the past tense and is merely explaining what happened in the break up of the relationship.

    Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XVIII” opens with a witty, light-hearted tone-

    “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

    This first line is a rhetorical question, and shows the mistress as a woman full of charisma and allure. The rhetorical question gives a facetious and playful beginning to the sonnet and gives the impression of a thriving, loving, passionate relationship. The way, in which the opening line uses summer imagery, -“Summer’s day”- suggests the loving, amorous, ardent relationship, which Shakespeare intended to present to the readers.

    The speaker continues to express this love he feels for his mistress in the next line-

    “Thou art more lovely and more temperate;”

    – gives the reader a sense of Shakespeare illustrating his mistress as a woman full of physical beauty, which is an analogy of how he feels intimately for her. All the language used here is positive, it is suggestive of how the mistress is more beautiful than a blossoming summer’s day.

    Following the theme of beauty and affectionateness, Shakespeare uses the phrase, –

    “Darling buds of May”

    – to tell her how much he cares about her, and this gives an indication of Shakespeare’s belief that their love has the potential to blossom, grow and develop:

    “And summer’s lease hath all too short a date”

    This line tells the reader how Shakespeare thinks that perhaps his mistress’ life is too short to fulfil the real potential of their love. This shows how Shakespeare loves her and expresses sadness at the thought that their love must one day come to an end. The quote -“summer’s lease”- is used to refer to his mistress being as gorgeous as summer and that her “lease”, a binding contract with an agreed date, is too short for him and their love. Throughout the following four lines the imagery of summer is shown to be fading away and turning dull all the time. Personification of the sun and the sky is used to signify this experience-

    “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

    And often is his gold complexion dimm’d”

    The imagery “…eye of heaven…” is used to represent the sun. These two lines show how the sun is so beautiful with its “gold complexion” but although it is extremely attractive (“…too hot…”) it will die down and hide away from sight inevitably:

    “And every fair from fair some-time declines”

    The repetition of “fair” shows the happiness of both the season of summer and the woman talked about in the poem. This quote says that all good things however must come to an end some time. Shakespeare shows how he believes that their love could possibly end one day by chance despite how much they care for each other and feel for each other now-

    -“By chance, or nature’s changing course untrim’d”

    However the four lines which follow these show the reader how although the summer may fade away and become dull, the warmth and life in the person will not die but continue to thrive. Throughout these four lines, the word “eternal” is repeated. This shows the way that the speaker and his mistress share an undying love for one another.

    “But thy eternal summer shall not fade,”

    – This is the pivot point of Shakespeare’s argument and is where we can see how he knows that his mistress’ beauty and his love for her will never die.

    The final line in this quatrain-

    “When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,”

    has more than one meaning. It is an ambiguous line. The line “…eternal lines…” is symbolic of how her wrinkles will stay eternally or it describes the lines of the poem will always remain in his mind forever, implying that he will never forget her or the love he feels for her. I believe that this phrase indicates that the lines of this poem will let her memory live on despite how time may age or kill her.

    The poem is completed by a rhyming couplet-

    “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

    The poem is shown to be complete as Shakespeare answers his original question here, summer will end but she will not be forgotten, as the poem is a sign of remembrance in her honour. The repeated use of “this” in the close of the poem is referring to the poem itself. It shows that through the poem, the mistress will live forever.

    “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see”

    – is an indication to how her beauty will live on for as long as the earth remains. The speaker shows his undying love for his mistress here.

    In contrast to this image of a perfect, perpetual love shown in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XVIII”, Thomas Hardy gives an account of a failed love. In contrast to Shakespeare’s use of summer imagery in the opening line, Hardy makes his view on love clear with the use of insipid colours “white” “gray” and winter imagery-

    “We stood by a pond that winter day”

    This alone creates a sad, sombre atmosphere, as winter is associated with death, like the death of the relationship. The tone of the first line is far from similar to the happy, witty tone shown in “Sonnet XVIII”. The juxtaposition of winter imagery and of vowels: a, o, and u create a sense that the line is being dragged out, which achieves a sense of a static, lifeless relationship. The landscape is described in a baron or dead state in contrast with the blossoming, thriving nature in Shakespeare’s poem.

    The second line of the first stanza describes the sun as “white”, colourless as though it had been scolded by God-

    “And the sun was white as though chidden by God”

    – which is contrasted against the “gold complexion” of the sun in Shakespeare. This description of the sun is a solemn one and portrays a dull day to accompany the dull, empty relationship the speaker is experiencing.

    The use of “starving sod” is symbolic of the image of death in the poem. Only a “few leaves” were left on the ground which indicates how the tree had been dead for some time, perhaps telling the reader that the relationship was always destined for disaster. The leaves are described as “dead” and from an “ash” tree in the following line-

    “-They had fallen from an ash, and were gray”

    -the use of “ash” has an ambiguous meaning. It describes that the tree was an ash tree, but also refers to ash from a fire. Ash only appears once the fire is extinguished and so perhaps it is used here to show that the fire from their relationship is out. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust is said at a funeral, again an association with death and sadness. “gray” is a colour of grief. The speaker is clearly grieving the loss of his relationship.

    Stanza two shows how the speaker is trying to overcome the end of the relationship and move on. This is shown in the initial line-

    “Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove”

    “rove,” indicates that he is trying to move on. However the use of “rove” could also be interpreted as, whilst the two were together her eyes were always travelling, looking at other options, that she was never truly in love with the speaker. This is a sign that the relationship was not a concrete one and that the end was predictably inevitable.

    Hardy shows his readers how he failed to fully understand the relationship he was involved in through the next line-

    “Over tedious riddles of years ago;”

    This line is suggestive of the two people standing and talking about how their relationship went wrong. “riddles of years ago” implies that the relationship was a complicated one which ended a long time ago. The use of the word “tedious” implies that the relationship had become dull and burdensome upon the speaker.

    The line:

    “And some words played between us to and fro”

    – is a symbolic line through it showing how the relationship was one argument. “to and fro” implies that the two could not talk as though in love but instead were constantly fighting in contrast to Shakespeare’s poem which gives a loving relationship. Again this is another hint as to why the relationship was destined to corruption. The final line in the second stanza is one of a paradoxical nature:

    “-On which lost the more by our love”

    – it shows how the relationship was not to be a successful one from the outset.

    In the third stanza, enjambment is used to indicate the continuation of the speaker’s feelings after the relationship is over. The use of-

    “The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing”

    – is suggestive of how the speaker could see through the mistress’ false face and see the forced, unreal smile. This forced smile is a sign that the mistress was not interested in the speaker, and that the zest had gone from the relationship so an end was the only option.

    “Alive enough to have strength to die”

    Again Hardy uses paradoxical language here as he does with the following line-

    “And a grin of bitterness swept thereby”

    A relationship is supposed to be a happy, joyful thing. The use of “grin of bitterness” here shows the narrator’s real feelings and exemplifies how the narrator is aware of the untrue smile.

    The stanza finishes with leader dots at the end of:

    “Like an ominous bird a-wing”

    This phrase suggests that something of a bad nature is about to happen. The “grin of bitterness” is an omen to the narrator that the relationship is over. Personification is used:

    “…bird a-wing”

    The forth stanza revives the first stanza and the landscape illustrated earlier in the poem. It is the relationship viewed in retrospect.

    The last stanza opens with “Since then…” The use of a semicolon here shows the narrator looking back over the relationship and thinking about what has happened:

    “Since then keen lessons hat love deceives…

    … edged with grayish leaves.”

    The whole verse is a continuous rhyme with the last word of each line. This gives the verse a list-like quality showing the anger in the narrator. The use of alliteration in the second line of this stanza:

    “And wrings with wrong…”

    -also gives it a list-like quality. This style creates a sense of bitterness in the speaker, which is contradictory to the narrator’s feelings at the start. The language used here is also symbolic of the bitterness felt by the narrator. “Keen lessons that love deceives” is an ambiguous phrase. The narrator is talking about other relationships he has learned from or possibly the lesson he has learnt from this woman. The tone of this stanza reflects his discontent and shows how, with the passing of time, his resentment has intensified.

    The final two lines of the poem present a very paradoxical idea of the relationship, as they imply that the more they talk, the less fond of each other they grow. The third line suggests that the narrator has become somewhat hateful towards the mistress. He refers to the mistress using “God-curst sun…” which is a use of negative imagery.

    The poem finishes on a very definite note. Hardy uses pathetic fallacy to show how everything is dead. The poem ends where it began, at the side of a pond, and as a sign of the end, the pond is “edged with grayish leaves” implying that their relationship is dead.

    Although both writers use very similar methods to show their experiences of love, the two methods contrast in relation to style and imagery. Both poems share the same topic and are very closely related in terms of form and meaning but a clear comparison can be made to distinguish the two different attitudes towards love and relationships. My preference is Hardy’s poem, as I prefer the four by four line stanzas. I find this breaks up the poem better. The language describing this failed attempt at love compared to Shakespeare’s poem of a thriving love, is to the point and creates a sense of pity towards the speaker.


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    “Neutral tones” by Thomas Hardy and “Sonnet XVIII” by William Shakespeare Essay. (2017, Oct 26). Retrieved from

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