“Laugh and Be Merry,” by the English poet John Masefield (1878-1967), celebrates the psychological and practical advantages of optimism, implying that pessimism is pointless and self-defeating. The basic argument of the poem is explicitly stated in its first four words (also its title) and is openly reiterated throughout the work. This is not an especially complex or subtle poem, but complexity or subtlety would not be particularly appropriate to a work of this sort, which is clearly directed at a broad readership and is as much a public exhortation as it is a lyric poem.
Some complexity does enter the poem in the second half of line 1, which reads, “better the world with a song,” a phrase that can at first be interpreted as meaning either “the world is better with a song” or “improve the world by singing.” By the time the reader finishes line 2, the latter meaning seems primary, but the earlier possible meaning has already been pondered and thus is part of the experience of the poem. The meaning of a poem, in other words, is as much a process that develops through time as it is a static, stable product or object. A piece of literature (as the theorist Stanley Fish has argued) is more like a work of music (which develops moment by moment) than like a painting or piece of sculpture (which can he perceived all at once).
Part of the experience of Masefield’s poem is the shocking shift that occurs as it moves from line 1 to line 2. Line 1 celebrates simple joys; line 2 extols metaphorical violence: “Better the world with a blow in the teeth of a wrong.” This line, although surprising, is crucial to the ultimate effectiveness of the poem as a whole. Line 2 implies that the speaker of the poem is not a naïve, shallow, unintelligent optimist. He recognizes that the world can be a place of wrongs and evils, and so his advice to enjoy life (while one can) seems mature rather than simpleminded. Indeed, line 2 can even be interpreted as suggesting that the best response to any wrong one suffers is to respond with laughter and a merry disposition. Sometimes optimism (the poem suggests) is a sign of inner strength, not a sign of foolish inexperience.
Another sign that the speaker’s optimism is not naïve appears in line 3: “Laugh, for the time is brief, a thread the length of a span.” This is, in other words, a carpe diem poem, counseling its readers to “seize the day” while the day is still within our grasp. Ultimately, the ethos or basic outlook of the poem is rooted in Stoicism, the ancient brand of philosophy that argued that one cannot change the immutable facts of...
(The entire section is 1083 words.)