(In my last post I picked on an old professor. That made me think of another old professor whom I’ll add to the list of blog-post inspiration. By the way, I enjoyed learning under both of them.)
One of my old professors taught me that when reading a poem, never assume that the poem’s perspective is that of the poet.
OK. Let me think about this a second. Let’s take a few lines from one of my favorite poems – “Hap” by Thomas Hardy:
IF but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
So according to my professor, it’s unfair to say that Thomas Hardy is angry at God or that his life is in a turmoil, and he’s looking to make sense of it of a terrible loss he experienced in his life.
Because who is the “I” that he is referring to? Himself? A friend? A relative? A completely made-up person? No one at all? Perhaps these are just the words that came to him randomly? We obviously don’t know (unless he decides to tell us).
It would be foolish to judge Thomas Hardy’s personal life based on the perspective of his poem.
Likewise, it would be rash to judge an author solely by what he/she wrote in a novel. It’s so easy to assume that the perspective, tone, or themes of a particular book permeate directly from the soul of the writer. That may be the case, but it also may be the furthest thing from the truth.
Which writer would like to be judged by the content of his/her writing? No one I know, but I fear that is a common occurrence, and naturally so. Writers certainly pull a lot of truth from their own life, twist it around, spice it up, coat it with several layers of implausibility, and slap it on the page as a new creation. The real truth of any given phrase may be very difficult to assess.
For example, in my novel “Beauty Rising”, depending on what passage one looks at, I could be accused of being a hater of Vietnamese people, a lover of Vietnamese people, a critic of the Vietnamese government, a critic of small town America, a cynic of family, a believer in faith, a denier of faith, a hopeless romantic, a lover of tragedy, etc… you get the picture. Whether these are true or not, to me, isn’t important because I just wanted to write a good story.
I suppose Thomas Hardy just wanted to write a poignant poem.
So I would say this. If you want to judge someone, judge them for what they say and how they live, but not what they write.