On the Title: "Neutral Tones" encourages the reader to postpone any immediate inferences about the poem. It also refers to the muted ("monochrome") colour scheme found in the first and last stanzas; these colours, in turn, are used by Hardy to emphasise the blandness/"deadness" of the emotions between the persona and his love. Thus the title is an introduction to both the poem's images and emotional back-drop.
Themes: Love (cruelty of it), Distance, Pain
Overall Structure: A four stanza lyric with a continuous A/B/A/B rhyme scheme. These repeated ideas may add to the idea of monotony or dullness in emotion. This is a weak idea, however.
First Stanza Notes: Hardy presents a scene and a persona. The use of the personal pronoun "we" has two effects: 1) It establishes a subtle familiarity between the reader and the persona - we can partially associate with the persona if he/she (sex is not made explicitly clear) through the simple use of the pronoun. 2) The lack of fixed gender does also add to a feeling of distance - distancing effects are used throughout the poem and will be explored. This particular one is maintained throughout.
The scene presented is one of two figures standing by a pond; nearby sits a "sod" - a small grass turf. The description of this scene is incredibly important to the understanding of the poem; it sets the mood and leads to an eventual repetition of the image itself (last verse). The scene is devoid of colour, Hardy-esque by character and elegiac in tone. HEREBY NOTE: Hardy only uses the sense of sight in this poem (a nuance maintained throughout) - this is the only sense which can be used from afar. Thus we discover another distancing effect.
The scene is devoid of colour - Hardy is introducing his colour scheme. As previously discussed, this reflects the muted nature of emotion expressed in the poem. Perhaps one can label the colours monochrome? Evidence, if needed in an exam, with brief exploration:
"Sun was white"; suggesting a light drained of colour. This phrase becomes important when considering the other images associated with the sun and sunlight. "Chidden of God" means 'told off' by God. This is an intentionally extreme image, certainly a rather bleak one! Compare with the 'God-curst sun' in fourth stanza.
"Few leaves"; weakest of the quotes. Indicates a lack of green on the sod (in terms of numerical value).
"Starving sod"; the grass is dying, and therefore turning brown. Like dried grass in the summer?
"Fallen from an ash"; significant choice of tree (obscure point though). Ash is associated implicitly with death.
"Gray"; for use when desperate.