‘To a Pessimist’ by James Lasdun is a twenty-four line poem which is easily separated into three sets of seven lines, and one set of three, for an in-depth analysis. While Lasdun has not chosen to give this poem a particular rhyme scheme, it does make use of a large number number of half end rhymes. These are words which are close to rhyming, perhaps sounding the same, but they do not rhyme.
One perfect example of this technique can be seen in the first stanza with the end words, “chances,” and “fences.” These words are quite similar to one another but are not perfect matches. Another example can be found in the second section of lines with the end words, “blossom” and “bosom.”
Throughout this piece Lasdun makes use of long, run on sentences that often stretch up to seven lines. These phrases are punctuated by instances of enjambment in which the phrase is cut off, jumping to the next line, before the thought reaches a natural stopping point. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of To a Pessimist
‘To a Pessimist’ by James Lasdun describes one speaker’s beliefs about the general goodness of the world and the way he believes a pessimist should live.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the way in which pessimistic people view the world. Things are seen as being “empty” rather than “half-full,” and “good luck” as something which will never fall into one’s lap. This, he states, is not the case. While good luck might be rare, eventually everyone will experience it. There is no truly “empty” scenario.
He continues on to ask whether, knowing the struggle one went through to become a part of the world, if it could be possible to resist complete despair? He hopes the answer to this question is yes and that any pessimists listening to or reading this poem will be inspired to a take a moment and consider the wonder of their own lives.
The final three lines accept the fact that terrible tings are going to happen. There is nothing one can do to stop them. But, he asks, what comes next? The speaker believes that good things will follow bad, even when the circumstances seem impossibly grim.
Analysis of To a Pessimist
The poem begins with the speaker stating what he understands to be an undeniable fact about the world. This is something he believes to be true, and that he thinks his readers and listeners will be able to understand and relate to. He describes how the way that “good luck” acts upon the world and the chances that one has of continually experiencing it.
The first three lines are combined into the speaker’s initial thought. He begins describing good luck as something that, more likely than not, will be a rare occurrence in one’s life. It is something that might “drop in your lap” on occasion, but one should not expect to see it everyday. The “chances” of regular run-ins with “good luck” are “mostly against,” but they do happen.
The following four lines take on a number of different things that people do, or say, that contributes to one’s general impression of the world. The speaker is experimenting with popular phrases which are used to describe whether one’s life is going well, whether one sees good things happening in the future, and one’s confidence in their own ability to succeed.
He uses the idea that the “grass is always greener on the other side” to phrase his line, “the grass is basically ashes.” Some people, the pessimists among the crowd, will look through the fence and not see a better life in the future, but a worse one. Many people expect the world to throw the horror at them, and for their circumstances to never improve. This idea is continued in the next line when the speaker suggests that the “best-laid glass,” a play on words with the phrase, “best laid plans,” will eventually break no matter whether one sees the cup as being “half-full or -empty.”
Just as the title of the poem states, the speaker is addressing his lines to someone who sees the world this way. He is hoping to change one person’s, or a group of people’s opinions about how the world works.
In the second set of lines the speaker is hoping that the people listening to, or later reading his words, will see that there is another way to live that does not involve, “bury[ing] / your head in a dune of Zoloft.” This is a reference to the popular, often prescribed, anti-depressant. It is an exaggeration on a way to escape from the realities of life.
The speaker wants anyone listening to refrain from blocking out the world and to “remember…the sheer oddness” of having been “brought” into it. Through these lines he is reminding his listener that the world in which humankind lives is “remarkable” and “improbable.” If one takes a moment to remember the luck of ever having been born in the first place, regardless of what one’s situation is now, things will seem better and brighter. It is an amazing thing to have been brought “out of the black” to live amongst one’s peers.
In the final set of seven lines the speaker continues on the path he started in the second section. He is still commenting on what it means to have been born and the “singular” nature of one’s existence.
This third set of lines is made up of one long question. It begins by reminding the listener that he/she came a very long way to live in the world. She/he has “hollowed” out a passageway into their life, forced their way through “the rock of ages” to arrive where they are now. Life is truly remarkable and should be remember as such.
The following lines take that which was previously mentioned and use it as the reason one might “resist / abject despair.” While it might be impossible for the listener to feel or seek “outright happiness,” could it, the speaker wonders, be possible to reject a complete depression?
In the final three lines of To a Pessimist the speaker prefaces all that he has so far said with the line, “Your house will fall down…” He knows that bad things are going to happen, and that his listeners are more than aware of this fact. He wants to make sure that those who are hearing him take a second to wonder what destruction will be followed by.
The poem, To a Pessimist, trails off in its final lines, leaving the reader with the idea that horror and loss can be followed by something beautiful, “by the sky itself,” and perhaps things even more wonderful. It might not come today, but it will come at some undefined future moment the speaker cannot see. He has faith that despair will lead to something close to happiness.