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"DEPARTED YOUTH" Hannah Cowley (1813) Published as part of Hannah Cowley's posthumous Works, "Departed Youth" had been written years before. Cowley composed the 34 lines of rhyming couplets in 1797, the year her husband died while serving in India. The poem's theme of youth's fleeting existence, expressed through a description of physical change, is written with a contemplative tone, edged by regret and sadness. That tone, however, will be overridden by appreciation for spirit, the true measure of a person's condition.
The poem begins with the speaker's insisting that although "the rosebuds from my cheek / Have faded," they are the same cheeks that once "Spoke youth, and joy, and careless thought." Whether because of "guilt, or fear, or shame uncaught," her soul "uninjured, still hath youth, / Its lively sense attests the truth!" The idea that one's physical demeanor does not necessarily mirror one's spiritual or emotional makeup becomes the focus of the poem. The voice declares, "Oh!" with the exclamation point as evidence of passion and energy, "I can wander yet, and taste / The beauties of the flowery waste," with the term waste adding a realistic balance to the imagery of flowers, which, as the speaker, lose their beauty with time's passage. Her passion can still be aroused by "The nightingale's deep swell," its song bringing tears to her eyes. Cowley suggests bittersweet emotion with the imagery of tears that "steal" to the speaker's eyes, unbidden. Another exclamation begins the fifth line, balancing the previous one, as the speaker declares,
Rapt! Gaze upon the gem-decked night,
Or mark the clear moon's gradual flight,
Whilst the bright river's rippled wave
Taken for its surface meaning, the imagery is simply that noticed most often by young lovers. The allusion to the moon, a traditional symbol for woman, supports the speaker's identity as a female. The fact that the moon shines on a river, rather than a lake, suggests the deeper meaning of time's movement, rapid and constant like that of a river. The reflection of the moon, or woman, quivers, uncertain in the moving water.
Next Cowley selects "Painting" and her passionate reaction to it to prove that she may still enjoy "the lofty passions of the mind." It does not "strive in vain" to "hint the sentiment refined," for the speaker declares she continues to "bow" to art's "sweet magic," just "As when youth decked my polished brow." One's physical appearance remains secondary to the ability to appreciate art. The speaker next alludes to the power of sculpture, "The chisel's lightest touch," to move her. using repetition to advantage, Cowley adds, "Through the pure form, or softened grace, / Is lent me still; I still admire." Art offers her greater pleasure, through its "pure" nature, than ever did her physical beauty. Cow-ley includes a self-reference in the imagery of a poet, as the speaker testifies to the power of literature, which causes her yet to "kindle at the Poet's fire—." The fact that she continues to react to art remains her salvation, as she convinces herself that, regardless of what happens to her physical state, she can yet enjoy life.
The speaker at last directly addresses Time, as Cowley adopts the figurative language of personification. The speaker notes that since time has not destroyed art, she does not mind the physical changes. That change includes a loss of "luster from my eye," and graying hair, her "tresses sprinkle o'er with snow," although her hair once "boasted" its "auburn glow."
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