Charlotte Smith

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In what ways would Charlotte Smith’s poem "Thirty-Eight. To Mrs___Y" and Maxine Kumin’s poems "Skinnydipping with William Wordsworth" and "Sonnet in So Many Words" be similar? Or in what ways are they decidedly different?

The poems "Thirty-Eight. To Mrs___Y," "Skinnydipping with William Wordsworth," and "Sonnet in So Many Words" are all concerned with reconciling oneself to middle age and, more broadly, reconciling ideals with actuality. Smith engages these ideas in more general terms, though the speaker seems to draw on her own personal experience. Kumin speaks in terms of literary allusion.

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Charlotte Smith's "Thirty-Eight. To Mrs. ___y" and Maxine Kumin's "Skinnydipping with William Wordsworth" concern the tension between youth and middle age. Smith speaks in general terms, whereas Kumin speaks in specific terms of her own life, making allusions to the British Romantic poet William Wordsworth. In these two poems, youth is idealized; it is a time of physical strength and beauty as well as aesthetic intoxication. Old age seems remote and distasteful. Smith writes, "Then the starch maid, or matron sage, / Already of the sober age, / We viewed with mingled scorn and hate." Over time, though, that youth fades, and the speakers need to reckon with the imperfections in themselves and others. Kumin describes her college boyfriend as "a Harvard man who could outquote me / in his Groton elocutionary style," though after a fling in later life she says, "How I mistrust them, cheaters that will flame, / gutter and go out, like the scarlet tanager / who lights in the apple tree but will not stay." Life does not turn out the way these speakers had expected.

Kumin's "Sonnet in So Many Words" also works in literary allusion, this time to the characters Clarissa and Richard Dalloway from Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. The poem does not address this discrepancy between youth and age, but there is a similiar negotiation between the ideal and the real: "taking up the coffee / grinder or scraping bits of omelet free / for the waiting dogs who salivate and sit" does not present a particularly idyllic picture of marriage. "And yet," Kumin writes, "this is a love poem." Even though actuality falls short of the ideal, there is still something to be savored.

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