Poem of the week: To a Lady … by Elizabeth Moody | Books

To a Lady Who Sent the Author a Present of a Fashionable Bonnet

Since you are, dear madam, so favoured by time,
That he seems to have granted a lease of his prime,
With the power to renew it whenever you please;
Unencumbered by taxes of age and disease;
Prolonging that date, which in others appears,
The frail fleeting tenure of very few years:
Why could you not ask him some favour to send,
Enclosed with a present designed for a friend?
One tint for her cheeks of youth’s vivid hue,
To suit with those beautiful ribands of blue;
One spark for her eyes of a juvenile twinkle,
One smile of her mouth undeformed by a wrinkle;
One ringlet or two – on her forehead to play,
Unmixed with the sorrowful colour of grey?
Yet too modest, perhaps, these requests you forbore,
Yourself so indebted would not ask for more.
And perchance had you teased him, thus Time might reply:
“That to you I am partial – I will not deny;
Nor need I declare – what who sees you must know:
That on few I such singular graces bestow.
But if from my rules I recede for your sake,
And still give to you what from others I take,
I cannot for all so go out of my way,
And reverse those decrees which all mortals obey.
My law is that youth shall soon wither and fade,
And like morning’s bright beam shall be followed by shade.
Most severe is the sentence I pass on the face,
Full soon on its features my finger you trace.
Yet I no such dread rigour extend to the mind,
In age that still charms if it be but resigned.
If calmly beholding fair youth’s setting sun,
It with fortitude reckons my sands as they run;
Not with peevishness fraught as each wrinkle appears,
And resisting my progress with petulant tears.
No – your sex must learn patient good humour of you,
And meet my approaches with smiles as you do:
With temper unruffled by envy or spleen,
Like the sun of the autumn – thus mild and serene,
Learn of you to converse with politeness and ease;
Then in spite of my spoils – they will know how to please.”

Known in her literary circle as the Muse of Surbiton, married in 1777 to a dissenting Presbyterian clergyman, Elizabeth Moody was born Elizabeth Greenly in Kingston upon Thames in 1737. Her father, Thomas Greenly, was a successful lawyer, and Elizabeth grew up well-read and fluent in several languages. Her only full collection, Poetic Trifles, was published in 1798. I discovered her work (four of her poems, at least) in Joyce Fullard’s anthology British Women Poets 1660-1800, and was charmed: she exemplifies some of the most graceful and human aspects of 18th-century poetry by either gender.

Her epistle to the bonnet-sender might have been subtitled The Art of Flattery. A cunning device, the personification of Time, directs some excruciatingly fulsome compliments to the addressee in a more palatable form. Time is responsible for the friend’s exemption from ageing. At first, “he” is a somewhat worldly figure, granting leases, charging taxes, allowing favourable tenure. The lawyer’s daughter, of course, would have been familiar with these terms and they serve her allegorical purpose very well.

While Time has been unusually kind to the gift-giver, the recipient admits that she has not been so blessed. Her little list of desirable attributes in lines nine to 14 picture the 18th-century English feminine ideal for us. It combines the artistry of the blue ribands and carefully arranged “ringlet or two” with the more natural smiles and “juvenile twinkle” in the eyes. A fair complexion is presumably implied.

The writer pursues her conceit, that of the women’s drawing-room intimacy with the gallant old Time, and reveals something of the 18th-century social conventions around asking favours. Light teasing, for a woman approaching a man, would have been an essential dance-step. The friend in Moody’s letter didn’t “tease” Time with extra pleas, but the rest of the poem is devoted to what Time would have said if she had.

Time now seems more authoritative. He represents, perhaps, the social equality dissenting Christians favoured, declaring he must overcome his partiality and treat everyone the same. The admission that “Most severe is the sentence I pass on the face, / Full soon on its features my finger you trace” seems particularly heartfelt, as if encoding a personal, rueful note. Time otherwise has a sanguine view of old age, claiming to apply “no such dread rigour” to mental processes, and recommending mellow calm, “Like the sun of autumn”. And so the speaker is able to pay her friend more compliments, while we can be gratified with a clue to her age.

The conclusion is disappointing at first sight. So everything’s fine as long as a woman continues to “know how to please”? But I suspect Moody of irony, an irony she, middle-aged or older, enjoys sharing with a friend at a similar juncture. Perhaps their knowing how to converse elegantly and “please” has unrevealed personal connotations, or at least signifies a recurrent joke between them.

Moody is a skilful prosodist. Her rhymes couple unobtrusively, the jaunty tetrameters flow along in anapaests and dactyls light as the male ideal of female conversation and its ambiguous laughter. This delightful “thank you letter” could almost put you in the mood for Christmas shopping …

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