Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

The primary theme of “In the Thirtieth Year” is that of the egoism and isolation of a man who would close in on himself because of the pain a struggle for love would involve. He escapes the struggle into a smug self-satisfaction.

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Cunningham powerfully portrays the seemingly reasonable choice of the speaker. The tone of the poem is also noteworthy, as Cunningham does not reveal the satiric nature of the poem directly; he describes the choice of heart for wife as if it were commonplace. It is only when the reader begins to look beyond the choice into its consequences that the poem can be seen in a very different light.

The poem as a whole portrays a complete relationship, bizarre as it is. It begins at the moment of the choice of the beloved. It develops into the closeness of an intimate relationship, swears fidelity, and finally completes itself with a mutual death.

The poem is a satirical exposure of a certain way of life. Cunningham does not satirize a specific individual but a more general type. The type that is represented here is one that seems to interest him frequently as a satirical subject. For example, in an earlier poem, “The Solipsist,” he writes of the type of person who recognizes no “others.” Everyone is subsumed into the demanding self. It is a position of absolute certainty that is achieved by the exclusion of the very existence of others.

It is interesting that in the same group of poems, Cunningham has written a poem on a very different relationship. “To my Wife” speaks of the difficulties and joys of love. In this poem, love is not a static relationship as it is in “In the Thirtieth Year”; it changes as “affections alter” the two partners. Even though there is constant change, the creation of a real relationship is impressive.

So love by love we come at last,As through the exclusions of a rhyme,Or the exactions of a past,To the simplicity of time,

This achieved love is both “quiet as regret” and “like anger in the night.” It is a complex love that can include opposites and still sustain itself.

Cunningham is best known for his epigrams, and all of his poems are terse and compressed. In this poem, the reader will not find any of the witty turns and surprises found in the epigrams. To understand it, the reader must see it as the encapsulation of a life in very few lines. Such economy is appropriate because it is a life that rigidly excludes the possibility of anything other than the self. So the unity of the poem is the unity of a deliberately reduced and restricted life. Cunningham does not intrude his own voice into the poem. The “I” of the poem tells his own story and condemns himself with his own words.

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