The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

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The title of “In the Thirtieth Year” is clearly significant. It points to the time and moment of choice when the speaker elects to take his “heart to be his wife.” It also indicates that the normal search for someone to give his heart to has been ended. It is a choice, instead, of solitariness and self-sufficiency. The reason this choice comes at the “thirtieth year” is not explained, but it suggests a deliberate choice after earlier failures in love, failures to find someone to whom his heart may be given.

The speaker of the poem is not the poet, J. V. Cunningham. He is an ironic speaker who seems not only to explain but also to justify his choice of separateness. Cunningham is usually a straightforward poet who despises the fashionable use of irony. Here, however, he uses a mask to represent a way of thinking and living that is quite different from his own. He is satirizing the type of man who would make such a choice to protect himself from the pain and risk of human relationships.

Only eight lines long, “In the Thirtieth Year” is a very precise poem. It begins by describing an unusual wedding of the speaker to his heart; this substitute for a “wife” is announced as a reasonable and viable option. Yet a person who keeps his “heart” to himself, who actually weds it, is an egoist who feeds upon himself rather than risk the effort involved in developing a relationship with another person.

The second couplet clarifies this solipsistic union: “and as I turn in bed by night/ I have my heart for my delight.” The “heart” has not been given away to another, a situation about which many poets have written. Instead, his “heart” is there at his call and command and gives him the only delight he will receive. Indeed, there is a parody of a sexual relationship as the speaker turns to meet not his beloved but his own heart.

The “heart” in the third stanza remains a part of the speaker. There is, at least, the assurance of fidelity. “No other heart may mine estrange” since it is a part of him. It alters as he alters, forming a perfect union. The “heart” is an echo of its solitary possessor, changing and mirroring its owner and sole proprietor.

The last section of the poem produces an interesting disjunction: “and it is bound, and I am free.” The “heart” cannot wander to another; it cannot leave the speaker. The speaker, however, has attained his freedom by excluding all other possibilities, a very illusory freedom based on the imprisonment of his heart.

The last line brings the poem and the relationship to an appropriate close: “and with my death it dies with me.” They are joined together in life in an exclusive relationship, so it is only appropriate that they perish together at death.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

“In the Thirtieth Year” is written in rhyming couplets that are appropriate for the balance and antithesis that Cunningham uses to trace the relationship between self and heart. The union is complete and will allow no one else to intrude. The heart has been joined to the self in alternating lines of verse in nearly every couplet. For example, in the second couplet the first line has the speaker touch on his turning in bed and the closing line of the couplet has the heart turn to the speaker.

The meter is iambic tetrameter, but there are a few significant variations. The first line of the poem, for example, has slack syllables at the beginning of the line, and the sixth line (“For my heart changes as I change”) violates the iambic pattern in the first and second feet. The regular meter is quickly reestablished, however, in the next line (“And it is bound, and I am free”). The poem is also divided into stanzas of two lines in which the first runs on and the second is end-stopped, making each couplet a separate and complete unit.

The rhymes of the poem are also interesting. For the most part, they provide effective contrasts. For example, “estrange” is rhymed with the very different “change.” Change suggests freedom and estrange a fracturing. Best of all, perhaps, in the last couplet “free” is rhymed with “me.” The supposed freedom is only the result of a relentless concentration on the self by excluding all others.

The language of the poem is the language of love; “wife,” “delight,” and “estrange” all suggest a close love relationship, although the relationship that is established in the poem is very different from usual. It is protective self-love that will not risk itself by reaching out to another.

Of the few poetic devices used, the metaphor of taking “my heart to be my wife” frames the whole self-contained parody of a relationship. The images of turning in bed to meet not a loved one but one’s own heart for “delight” is appropriately derisive. The image of the heart being “bound” is also interesting, especially since that binding is the means to the speaker’s freedom, which would be impossible in a true relationship.

The most important device, however, is the personification of the speaker’s heart. It assumes the characteristics of a person as it substitutes for a wife in its fidelity and companionship; it also provides the only delight that is possible for the speaker.