Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1083
“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 life (such as suffering) but must simply deal with them as best as one can. Deep, persistent sorrow (according to this view) is ultimately pointless and unproductive. The best way to live life is never to surrender to pessimism or despair. Laughter, from this point of view, is not shallow or superficial but is in some ways a potent survival mechanism.
In line 4, the speaker argues that each human being is merely a small (but nonetheless important) part of “the old proud pageant of man.” Humans in the past, in other words, have dealt bravely with life, and so should the current generation. Earlier people have shown resilience and courage, and therefore so should (and so can) we. Once more, the counsel the speaker offers does not seem naïve: he emphasizes that others have been able to confront life with strong stoicism and even joy, even taking pride in their accomplishments and making us, in turn, proud of them and for them. Humans living today (the speaker implies) can pass on that proud heritage to their own descendants if they will only adopt the sturdy, optimistic spirit their ancestors have already embraced.
In the second stanza, the speaker offers another reason for feeling and displaying a basically sunny disposition: he assumes that the Christian God actually exists and provides a model for human behavior. God took (and presumably still takes) joy in creation. God himself is a happy God, and so humans, made in his image, should imitate their maker. God filled heaven and earth with the “strong red wine” of his own mirth, a phrase all the more striking because each syllable is so heavily accented. Yet even in this stanza, the poet offers the kind of advice and consolation that might appeal to a stoic pagan: “Laugh and be merry: remember, in olden time” (5). That is to say, if it does nothing else, the joy one feels during one’s youth will provide happy memories when one is old.
In stanza 3, the speaker continues to provide the kind of cosmic perspective he had introduced in stanza 2. This third stanza is quite literally colorful, and the colors the speaker mentions in this and the preceding stanza are all strong, primary colors: red and blue and green. Even the colors are striking and forceful; they imply vitality and vividness. Yet once again, the speaker is careful to protect himself from charges of naïve sentimentality: he advises that people should “Laugh, and battle, and work, and drink” (11); the middle two verbs remind us that life is not always easy, that it often involves conflict and labor. And precisely because it does, laughter and joy are essential.
The fourth (and final) stanza makes explicit a point that has so far been only implied: that we are all in this together—that the poem is addressed not simply to individual persons but to humanity in general. This idea had been faintly suggested earlier (in lines 4 and 9), but now the speaker openly emphasizes that each individual human being is part of a larger community (“like brothers akin” ). We all resemble temporary guests “in the rooms of a beautiful inn” (the earth), another striking and memorable image in a poem full of memorable images. Life is like a dance (15) and a game (16), or at least it can be seen as such if one embraces a positive attitude. In the final two words, the speaker directly addresses his readers as his “friends” (16), and by this point, most of us will be willing to accept this designation. The speaker, after all, seems to have our own best interests at heart, and he shares his wise counsel freely. Thus he does indeed seem a friend in several important senses of that word.
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