Human life, in a broader context, can be perceived as a journey from innocence to experience. Both the poems selected for this essay, “Advice to My Son,” by Peter Meinke and “The Ruined Maid” by Thomas Hardy purport this philosophy of life. The authors, through their work, attempt to show their audience how human lives turn out depends mainly on the choices people make during their youth. Both these poems best illustrate the expectation of our journey from innocence to experience. While the poem “Advice to My Son” deals with the significance of making careful choices because the choices humans make today may come back to haunt them later in life, the poem “The Ruined Maid” portrays a young girl who made choices which had both positive as well as negative influences on her life (Abcarian & Klotz). The poems under discussion also emphasize the effect society has on the happiness, of individuals. Meinke’s advice to “marry a pretty girl / after seeing her mother” can be inferred as his way of telling the audience that the temperament of people in the society has a profound impact on each individual’s happiness (Meinke, lines 18-19). On the other hand, Hardy’s repetitive use of the word “ruin[ed]” seem to purport the idea that even though ‘Melia may be better off than she was in her former life, she cannot be truly happy because society does not readily accept prostitutes’. Human experience has shown that they are often forced to make choices by the circumstances which rob them of their innocence; however, losing innocence shall not be synonymous with losing happiness. This essay seeks to discuss how social opinions shape human perception of happiness as people grow up, gleaning experience from life, and illustrate the poignancy of life’s journey from innocence to experience.
Peter Meinke’s “Advice to My Son” offers a lot of tips on living a happy life. Meinke’s advises his son that “[t]he trick is, to live” in the present while planning for tomorrow (line 1). Meinke continues to give his son practical advice besides emphasizing the importance of enjoying life to its fullest. Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid” demonstrates the interaction between a “country girl” and a city girl who happen to meet in the city after a long time (line 24). The “country girl” (line 23), impressed by her old friend’s newfound prosperity, compares it to the pitfalls of her old life when she was dressed in “tatters” (line 5) and had to toil hard for a living. She yearns for similar prosperity, obviously unaware that her friend’s wealth comes as a fruit of selling her body.
Although conspicuous similarities are not evidenced in these poems, they both attempt illustrate the contrast between experience and innocence. In particular, “Advice to My Son” unfolds in the form of counseling by an experienced father to a son who is probably still in his teens and unaware of the ways of the world. Therefore, one encounters an array of practical advice in the poem such as living in the present while planning for tomorrow. Meinke displays the wisdom of his thoughts when he writes about the need to create a proper balance between beauty and substance in the line “between the peony and the rose / plant squash and spinach, turnip and tomatoes” (Abcarian & Klotz, lines 12-13). Moreover, the author hints at the consequences of our choices when he says that we shall “… arrive / at our approximation here below / of heaven or hell” (lines 8-10). Similarly, “The Ruined Maid” also describes the consequences of a decision that Melia took – “a mere country girl coming from the poorest of backgrounds.” (line 23). In her former life, Melia was “… in tatters, without shoes or socks/ Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks.” (lines 6-7). She seems obviously unhappy with this life as she “… used to call home-life a hag ridden dream.” (line 17). Fortunately, she makes a choice to escape from this life of drudgery and runs away to the big city in hopes of better prospects. She ends up becoming a prostitute there, which is a direct consequence of her decision. While she manages to escape poverty, the readers realize that her prosperity does not necessarily make her happy, and she discourages her friend from taking up her profession. Therefore, having learned from experience, she advises her raw country girl friend “on the ways and the consequences of our decisions.” (line 23). Thus, both these poems contain an experienced person imparting advice to a “raw” innocent person about the facts of life based on their own experiences, (line 23) thus helping them to move along on their journey of life, from innocence to experience.
Despite the similarities as discussed above, there are also some major differences between the two poems. In “Advice to My Son,” the father’s advice is mere generic and pertains to the common truths of life, such as enjoying each day while planning for the future and balancing “beauty” (line 13) with “sustenance” (IS IT NOT SUBSTANCE?) (line 15). Meinke doesn’t offer counsel on any particular situation but giving general advice to his son who is about to step out into the big, bad world. On the other hand, in “The Ruined Maid,” this advice remains confined to one particular situation, as ‘Melia tells her innocent friend not to not run after riches, as it would lead to her getting “ruined.” While Meinke gives his advice directly, Melia’s advice is indirect and in the irony of her “ruined” situation by repeating the word several times, as in the case of lines 4, 8, 12, 16, 20 and 24. However, despite the not so significant differences, the readers will easily recognize a common thread of the theme of losing innocence and gaining experience, in both poems.
Further, the similarity of themes also becomes evident in the fact that both the poems narrate a human being’s quest for happiness. Meinke’s poem is about advice to his son on how to achieve happiness, while “The Ruined Maid” is the story of a young girl who comes to the city in search of happiness and, ironically, although she grows prosperous, happiness still eludes her. Her unhappiness stems mainly because of how the society considers her profession. Although prostitution is generally looked down upon, it was not always considered as the profession of fallen women. The earliest prostitutes in some cultures were even worshipped and considered divine as can be seen by the “worship of Asarte, Ishtar and Aphrodite” (Clarkson 297). In Mesopotamia, “the priestesses of the Babylonian temples were prostitutes.” Besides, sex work is also a profession and “even an ‘industry’” and Prostitutes often employ savvy marketing tactics like many other professionals do. It is a low skill, high income job and most prostitutes view “their work as ‘easier’ and less oppressive than other survival strategies they might have chosen” (Edlund & Korn 188). As Bliss’s research into the lives of Mexican sex workers tells us even though prostitutes are often portrayed as a “threat to family,” and ironically they engage in these activities so that they can support their often numerous family members (Bliss 165). Thus, it transpires that even though her work may not be socially acceptable, a prostitute too hopes to derive happiness from her work and just like everyone else she too has a “right to [take] pride in [her] labor” for she subjects herself to “risk of abuse, violence and disease” so that she can “protect” herself and her family (Bliss 167). This is itself can be inferred as a lesson in life, where one loses the innocence and learns from the circumstances one finds oneself placed in during different stages in life.
Irrespective of whether we accept prostitution as a normal profession or not, we have to admit that prostitutes too are humans. Because of the nature of their job, prostitutes exemplify Meinke’s advice of living in the present. Even though the search for happiness is central to human existence, since Socrates, mankind has not been able to identify the kind of life which would make humans the happiest (Haybron 207). Aristotle believed that “happiness is the sole end of all human actions” and yet the collective human experience has not been able to identify the path to happiness (Haybron 209). Going by this criterion, obviously a prostitute can never be happy, but if happiness is the sole purpose of human existence, then it is the duty of society not to deny happiness to a person who is working hard to live a good life. Unfortunately, by condemning prostitution, we deny this basic right to prostitutes.
The extremely elusive nature of happiness necessitates that any advice on how to achieve it should be treasured. Moreover, in the same context, every person needs to be allowed to pursue happiness in whatever way his or her experience teaches that person. If a person is fortunate, that individual can achieve happiness simply by marrying the right person. But for the unfortunate, achieving even this basic human need can prove to be an uphill battle. Therefore, in the twenty-first century, it is high time that society gave up its Victorian morals and provided everyone with the opportunity to pursue happiness in whatever way they deem fit. After all, there is most definitely certain innocence about a happy person which needs to be preserved in our increasingly corrupt world. Besides, the happiest people tend to be those who can use their experience to preserve their innocence. This overall is the theme that emerges from both the poems.
- Abcarian, Richard and Marvin Klotz, eds. Literature: The Human Experience, 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.
- Hardy, Thomas. “The Ruined Maid.” Abcarian and Klotz. 158-159. (lines 1-24)
- Meinke, Peter. “Advice to My Son.” Abcarian and Klotz. 174-175. (lines 1-23)
- NOTE; THE TWO POEMS ARE CONTAINED IN THE BOOK BY ABCARIAN AND KLOTZ.
- Bliss, Katherine Elaine. “A Right to Live as Gente Decente: Sex Work, Family Life, and Collective Identity in Early-Twentieth-Century Mexico.” Journal of Women’s History. 15.4 (2004): 164-169. Academic Search Premier. Marvin Lib., Hudson Valley Community College. 2009.
- Clarkson, F. Arnold. “History of Prostitution.” Canadian Medical Association Journal. 41:3 (1939): 296-301. 2009.
- Edlund, Lena and Evelyn Korn. “A Theory of Prostitution.” Journal of Political Economy. 110:1 (2002): 181-214. JSTOR. Marvin Lib., Hudson Valley Community College. 2009.
- Haybron, Daniel M. “Two Philosophical Problems in the Study of Happiness.” Journal of Happiness Studies. 1.2 (2000): 207-225. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Marvin Lib., Hudson Valley Community College.
- Miller, Heather Lee. “Trick Identities: The Nexus of Work and Sex.” Journal of Women’s History. 15.4 (2004): 145-152. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Marvin Lib., Hudson Valley Community College.