Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


Cheerful Pessimism*


A friend of mine, with a ready and plentiful wit, discriminated between two persons of his acquaintance by saying that one was a cheerful pessimist and the other a tearful optimist. The distinction is as suggestive as it is delightful, and comes near to dividing the world in two. The incongruous blending of sad and gay in both classes lends the universal application to the saying-makes it human and genuine. "Thank God, the worst has happened," says a Chinese proverb, pessimistic, but game to the last. "Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him," says the tearful optimist, Job. Here I am believing everything is just as bad as it can be, and yet with a fine indestructible core of valor still remaining; and there you are, convinced of the excellence of earth, protesting the unalterable prevalence of law and order, yet touched with the mouldy blight of melancholy even so.

After all, it is only a difference in the angle of vision. From your side of the fence; it is a green world touched with blue; from my side it is a blue world shading into green. And all on account of an hour's difference in our birth. For you the stars stood in one position at the time of your terrestrial advent; for me they had ranged themselves in a new order. But for both of us the same omnipotent influences of the planets and the suns, the same fortune to inherit from, though you have your portion and I have mine. We float together in a tide of being in the grasp of the same great wind, in the full of the same great moon. On the perilous, breathless crest of a wave you call yourself an optimist-with your heart in your mouth; I call myself a pessimist, seeing nothing but a well of water towering overhead as I gasp in the trough of a sea. In a moment we change places. But I have the advantage of you in this, that I can dive from trough to trough, while you cannot skip from crest to crest. You must wallow down the sliding declivity of your unstable mountain of vision, to be cast up again for another momentary prospect. Very well, I take your word for the glorious sea view; meanwhile I prefer the equable tenor of my midsea way, engulfed at times, but avoiding, your sickening undulations-a Titanic dawdling for which I have no stomach.

Cheerful pessimism is the creed of comedy. By comedy one does not mean, of course, the cheap buffoonery which parades before us falsely in the name of the kindly muse. For Comedy is the wisest of all the divine sisters, and, while she enjoys the folly of others, she is herself sane and free. It is she who saves us from our own fatuity, mistress of so many great joy-givers, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Browning and Robert Louis. Not only is so much great poetry under her care; but all the entertaining stories and pictures of social humanity, from Fielding and Hogarth to Du Maurier and Mr. Meredith.

Comedy not only makes us laugh, she makes us see; while her solemn sister Tragedy has a way of blinding the sight and distorting our vision with fear. Tragedy makes us cross-eyed with terror, while Comedy wrinkles the corners of the eyes. Tragedy makes us lean and spectacular and uncompanionable, while Comedy makes us good comrades, passes the longest day with pleasantry, and puts us to bed without a regret. Nay, nay, Tragedy, thou tearful optimist. I will none of thy lofty icebergian platitudes and sententious aspirations. But I will follow our beloved Comedy, cheery, ironical, pessimistic, to the turning of the street (I had almost said to the ends of the earth, but that would be a lapse into the tragic phrase!) Even in Comedy's back there is something irresistibly alluring, and to meet her once face to face is to be her adoring slave for life. But imperial Tragedy, let who will gaze upon that awful mien or follow that ceremonious tread! Here, at least, is one poor child of earth who pulls down his window shade as he sees her approaching. Knock at some less lowly door, I pray, O queen; for to thy fearsome summons I am not at home. But comely Comedy may enter when she will, and stay as long as the law allows. To her I say:

There is no lock for thee.
Each door awaits thy hand!

As Mr. Aldrich has said with his fine grace,

Some Melpomene woo,
    Some hold Clio the nearest;
You, sweet Comedy-you
    Were ever sweetest and dearest!

And for the pursuit of the ideal, the creative instinct, the happy moment of inspiration, I am not persuaded that any better mood than that of cheerful pessimism has been found. Certainly if we are to be touched by the things of art, if our minds are to be convinced and our emotions enlisted, it must be-it can only be-by one who has plumbed the deepest abyss. And yet, just as certainly, will he fail to hold us, if he has not brought to light, like a diver from the sea, some pearl of great price, some talisman of joy. Your optimism is too apt to have a tearful tinge. Let me be never so stoutly settled in the optimistic faith, there still survives and recurs at times the inescapable sorrow of the world. And then, of course, disappointment comes to add its drop of bitterness. Whereas our brothers who hoped for nothing had the glad surprise of discovering shreds of happiness and vestiges of good at every turn.

Taken all in all, you would have a long argument in proving to me the creed of the Cheerful Pessimist is the worst in the world. And though she deny me with every breath, I shall still cleave to Comedy, mistress of the heart of man.

"Cheerful Pessimism," Commercial Advertiser, Oct. 13, 1900 [back]