Rudrum, Alan. Henry Vaughan. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1981.
"THIRTY-EIGHT" Charlotte Smith (1787)
Charlotte Smith addressed her poem "Thirty-Eight. To Mrs. H—y" to Eliza Hayley, a friend one year younger than she. Separated from her husband and attempting to raise her nine children alone, Smith counters the convention that a mature woman of 38 years might have nothing to which to look forward in her life. As young women the two friends had made fun of older ladies, and Smith revises their view in her poem.
The speaker addresses her friend, reminding her that in "early youth's unclouded scene" on the "brilliant morning of eighteen," with both "health and sprightly joy elate / We gazed on youth's enchanting spring." At that time the friends did not understand "how quickly time would bring / The mournful period—thirty-eight!" She will conclude nine of the 10 six-line stanzas with the number that had proved anathema to the young women.
The second stanza gives the reader insight into how the two friends thought of maturity at the age of 18. They pictured those of 38 as "the starch maid, or matron sage," viewing them with "mingled scorn and hate." She adds that the two "loved to trace" the "sad effects" of aging, which would include "sharp words, or sharper face." The strength of Smith's terms could at first glance indicate regret that she now fulfills the prophecy. However, the reader quickly sees that the poem is actually designed to show just how incorrect the girls' conception proved.
The third stanza begins in the negative vein but will turn positive, probably to emphasize the contrast between the speaker's present-day reality and the silly fancies of children. She incorporates the terms saddening, sickening, and dread, writing that the friends might have preferred death to the "neglect" that they anticipated would be the lot of any as old as 38. However, in stanza 4, the speaker introduces a note of reality, as she writes, "Time, in spite of wishes, flies" and "Fate our simple prayer denies," with death forced to wait the correct hour for its visit. Their auburn hair becomes marked by gray, and the fading roses usher in a time of "Reason" "at— thirty-eight!" Smith employs the figurative language (figure of speech) of personification to make Reason female, a figure that instructs the mature women's hands in "new pleasures," opening a view to "Prospect less bright—but far more true." That prospect includes the capacity to enjoy a man's friendship without scandal, as well as the capacity to see youth's follies for what they were, a scorning "of sober sense the plan / Which gives content—at thirty-eight." Further stanzas note that in addition to content, maturity confers joy in friendship and science, "the luxuries of mind," as well as the calm in which to enjoy their accomplishments.
The biographer Loraine Fletcher points out that the term we used in the stanzas to refer to the young women's youth remains general, as Smith, already married for more than two years at 18, had not been carefree. Nor was she able at age 38 to enjoy much contentment or any luxuries of note. Fletcher believes that Smith may have been trying to convince Eliza to reevaluate her present situation as an unhappy wife, a young woman viewed by many of their acquaintances as extravagant. Eliza enjoyed extended visits to Bath, which took her from her home for extended periods. Smith may allude to her friend's irresponsibility, suggesting that her habits, rather than a true dislike of her husband, are to blame for marital difficulties. However Eliza viewed the poem, she and her husband would separate permanently in 1789.
In the final stanza Smith moves forward. Having considered the past and the present, the speaker looks to a future when
With firmer souls and stronger powers,
With reason, faith, and friendship ours,
We'll not regret the stealing hours
That led from thirty-e'en to forty-eight!
Fletcher describes the poem as "amusing," but "conventional." In her view Smith's shift to a different form in her concluding stanza did provide an "effective ending."
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