A Contribution to Statistics

Wislawa Szymborska

‘A Contribution to Statistics’ by Wislawa Szymborska provides a statistical yet poignant snapshot of human behavior, attitudes, and emotional states.

Wislawa Szymborska

Nationality: Polish

Wislawa Szymborska was a Polish poet known for her use of irony, paradox, and understatement.

Szymborska often writes on themes such as war, philosophy, and perspective.

Key Poem Information

Unlock more with Poetry+

Central Message: Human nature is a complex tapestry of virtues, vices, and vulnerabilities

Speaker: Likely the poet

Emotions Evoked: Frustration, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

This poem offers a compelling and nuanced examination of human nature through the lens of faux-empirical analysis, balancing irony with emotional insight.

The poem ends with an equalizing statistic that 100 out of 100 people are mortal, underlining the shared fate that unites us all. This is a highly meaningful piece that contains a great deal of context to dig into. Readers are likely to find themselves learning more and more from this poem if they read it more than once. 


‘A Contribution to Statistics’ by Wislawa Szymborska utilizes numerical figures to categorize different kinds of people based on their characteristics.

The poem starts with observations like “those who always know better — fifty-two” and moves to more complex categories such as “cruel when forced by circumstances — better not to know even ballpark figures.”

There is a hint of irony in the use of cold statistics to describe something as intricate as human nature. Some categories have precise counts, while others are deliberately vague.

Structure and Form 

‘A Contribution to Statistics’ by Wislawa Szymborska is a nineteen-stanza poem that is divided into short stanzas. These range from one line in length up to four. The poem is written in free verse, meaning that it does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. It should be noted, though, that this poem was originally written in Polish and the version analyzed below was translated from the original by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.

Literary Devices

In this poem, the poet uses a few different literary devices. For example: 

  • Enjambment: this can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two. 
  • Paradox: The poem employs paradox when it comes to statements like “harmless singly, savage in crowds,” highlighting the contradictory but often true nature of human behavior.
  • Irony: One of the most striking literary devices is the use of irony. Using statistics to analyze the complexity of human nature itself is an ironic act.

Detailed Analysis 

Stanzas One-Five

Out of a hundred people

those who always know better
— fifty-two

doubting every step
— nearly all the rest,

glad to lend a hand
if it doesn’t take too long
— as high as forty-nine,

always good
because they can’t be otherwise
— four, well maybe five,

In the first lines of this piece, the poet presents a group of people who are overconfident or think they are more intelligent than others. The number “fifty-two” suggests this is the majority, thereby critiquing a commonly observed human trait of assuming superiority.

The poet also indicates that this group is also quite large, offering a commentary on the pervasive nature of self-doubt in society. They are willing to help, but only if it’s convenient for them.

In the fifth stanza, he says that people are intrinsically good, not because they want to be seen as good or because it’s convenient, but simply because they can’t be otherwise.

Stanzas Six-Eleven

able to admire without envy


harmless singly, savage in crowds

— half at least,

The next few short stanzas continue to delve into the complexities and paradoxes of human nature. The phrase “able to admire without envy — eighteen” speaks to a level of emotional maturity and self-assurance that most people find challenging. 

The relative number of eighteen underscores how rare it is to find individuals who can truly appreciate the success or beauty of others. This rarity is an interesting counterpoint to the more commonly observed traits mentioned earlier in the poem.

In the next section, the poet explores the naiveté and false perceptions that often accompany younger years. The line “not to be taken lightly — forty and four” is somewhat ambiguous. It could refer to people who have a serious demeanor or people whose actions and words carry weight and significance.

In the next couple of lines, “Living in constant fear of someone or something / — seventy-seven,” the poet observes how many people live their lives gripped by some form of fear.

The poet also notes that only a small group of people are truly capable of feeling happy. This line invites the reader to consider what barriers prevent the majority from attaining this state.

Stanzas Twelve-Fifteen



no flashlight in the dark

— eighty-three

sooner or later,

In the next few stanzas, Szymborska utilizes a blend of deliberate ambiguity, irony, and stark specificity to elicit reflection. She begins by addressing the disturbing capability for cruelty that individuals may exhibit when under external pressures. Rather than offering a numerical figure, as she does with other human traits, Szymborska chooses to leave this category open-ended.

Moving on to the subject of wisdom, the poet slyly critiques hindsight bias. She suggests that more people consider themselves wise after an event has unfolded than those who can claim to be wise in anticipation of events.

Moving on, the notion of selfishness is explored with both a numerical value and a personal parenthetical aside from the poet. The use of a number serves as an indictment, but it’s the poet’s own commentary that adds true depth to the poetic conversation

Next, the poet confronts the inevitable human experience of suffering. She states that the majority will face some form of pain. The exact number here serves to underline the universality of this human experience.

Stanzas Sixteen-Nineteen



Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.

The concluding lines of Wislawa Szymborska’s ‘A Contribution to Statistics’ provide a closing argument. Here, the poet merges moral considerations with the existential facts of life. The poet introduces the concept of righteousness, specifically. She says there is a difference between those who are merely righteous and those who are both righteous and understanding.

This reveals the poet’s subtle assertion that true moral virtue is not merely about being right or wrong. Instead, it actually involves a deep level of understanding and empathy, which is exceptionally rare.

The final lines, “mortal  /— a hundred out of a hundred. / Thus far this figure still remains unchanged,” is a powerful statement on the universality of human mortality. It injects a note of irony and finality. By ending with the universal condition of mortality, Szymborska underscores the shared fate that binds us all.


What is the theme of ‘A Contribution to Statistics?’ 

The central theme of this poem is the complexities and contradictions inherent in human nature. The poem serves as an analytical yet emotionally charged catalog of various human traits.

What kind of poem is ‘A Contribution to Statistics?’

This piece is a reflective, observational poem that can be categorized as a social commentary or philosophical poem. It employs elements of satire, irony, and paradox.

What is the mood of ‘A Contribution to Statistics?’

The mood of the poem is largely analytical but tinged with irony, melancholy, and even a hint of existential dread. While the poet applies a seemingly dispassionate statistical approach, the resulting portrait of humanity is far from neutral.

What is the tone of ‘A Contribution to Statistics?’

The tone of the poem is both detached and intimate. It blends a scientific, analytical approach with a deep understanding of human complexities.

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem would also consider reading some other Wislawa Szymborska poems. For example: 

  • The Three Oddest Words’ – is a poem that addresses peculiarities of language in ways that reflect the peculiarities themselves.

Some other related poems include: 

Poetry+ Review Corner

A Contribution to Statistics

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Wislawa Szymborska (poems)

Wislawa Szymborska

Szymborska often tackles philosophical and existential questions with a blend of irony and emotional depth. In 'A Contribution to Statistics,' she employs a statistical framework to explore a wide range of human characteristics. Her analytical approach, combined with sporadic personal reflections, epitomizes her style of engaging with deep subjects in an intellectually stimulating yet emotionally resonant manner.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

20th Century

The poem fits well within the 20th-century tradition of using poetry as a form of social critique and philosophical investigation. Its focus on cataloging human nature reflects the century's broader preoccupations with classification, identity, and the existential aspects of life, often examined through a modern or post-modern lens.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Poetry by Polish writers is often known for its focus on philosophical and existential themes. The social and historical context of Poland, especially its complicated 20th-century history, adds another layer of depth to Szymborska's exploration of human traits in this specific poem.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The poem addresses the theme of disappointment indirectly through its portrayal of human shortcomings. For instance, the relatively low number of people capable of happiness or the dwindling number of those who are both righteous and understanding speaks to an undercurrent of disillusionment with human potential.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


While the poem doesn't clearly discuss dreams, it does touch on ideals and aspirations, particularly through its enumeration of virtues like righteousness and the ability to admire without envy. These serve as dream-like visions of human potential juxtaposed against the harsh realities of cruelty and selfishness.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Though not a narrative of physical travel, the poem takes readers on a conceptual journey through the labyrinth of human characteristics. As each 'statistic' is revealed, the reader navigates through the maze of human qualities, ultimately ending at the universal destination of mortality.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Elements of frustration are evident in the poet's occasional personal commentary, such as the line where she wishes she was wrong about the number of selfish individuals. This illustrates a sentiment of exasperation with humanity's limitations and ethical shortcomings.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


A subtle sadness pervades the poem, especially in its observations about the limited number of people who are "capable of happiness" or those who live "in constant fear." These figures serve as quiet reminders of the sorrowful aspects of human existence.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The poem discusses adversity indirectly through the mention of individuals who are "hunched in pain" or living in "constant fear." It portrays these conditions as near-universal aspects of the human experience, thereby highlighting the adversity we all encounter.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The concept of change is subtly introduced in the phrase "Thus far this figure still remains unchanged," referring to mortality. The implication is that while many things about humanity may evolve, the statistic of mortality remains a constant.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The poem serves as a composite sketch of humanity, highlighting both our strengths and weaknesses. It calls attention to the virtues and vices that define us, emphasizing the shared reality of mortality that levels all human distinctions.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The poem's final lines bring the reader face-to-face with the inescapable reality of death, making mortality the ultimate equalizer among the diverse traits and behaviors cataloged throughout the poem.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

Free Verse

The poem employs free verse to effectively capture its subject matter. This form allows for the flexibility to blend analytical commentary with emotional nuance, mirroring the multiple dimensions of its subject—human nature.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+
Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Got a question? Ask an expert.x

We're glad you like visiting Poem Analysis...

We've got everything you need to master poetry

But, are you ready to take your learning

to the next level?

Share to...