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Ella Wheeler Wilcox's "Solitude"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Introduction and Text of "Solitude"

Ella Wheeler Wilcox's "Solitude" plays out in three riming eight-line stanzas. The poem's theme is a dramatization of the tension between a positive and a negative attitude: "For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth, / But has trouble enough of its own." The poem is confirming that negative attitudes repulse and the positive ones attract.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Solitude

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all.
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life's gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

Recitation of "Solitude"

Commentary

This poem makes an observation about the effects that the pairs of opposites have on human relationships on "the sad old earth."

First Stanza: The Pairs of Opposites

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

The speaker begins with two lines that have become a widely quoted catchphrase, so much so that many inaccurately attribute it to Shakespeare, Mark Twain, or any number of other famous, profound writers.

The poem focuses throughout on pairs of opposites that have profound effects on the lives, minds, and hearts of human beings. The mayic world would not exists without such pairs of opposites.

To speak to the phenomenon of the pairs of opposites, Paramahansa Yogananda in his Autobiography of a Yogi, employed Newton's Law of Motion, showing how the pairs are nothing more than the law of maya:

Newton's Law of Motion is a law of maya: "To every action there is always an equal and contrary reaction; the mutual actions of any two bodies are always equal and oppositely directed." Action and reaction are thus exactly equal. "To have a single force is impossible. There must be, and always is, a pair of forces equal and opposite."

Wilcox's speaker is thus dramatizing her observation of certain of those pairs and how those pairs have affected the people she has met and with whom she has interacted. The first stanza deals with the following pairs: laughing/weeping, mirth/trouble, singing/sighing, joy/sorrow.

Second Stanza: Attraction and Repulsion

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all.
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life's gall.

The speaker continues her dance of the pairs with rejoicing/grieving; she has determined that if one rejoices, one will be sought out by others, but if one grieves, that grief may cause others to turn away because it is natural to seek "pleasure" not "woe."

The speaker continues with glad/sad, stating that gladness will bring you many friends, while sadness will cause a loss in friendship. She emphasizes her claim by stating that although you may offer a sweet beverage, the sadness of your disposition will cause you to "drink life's gall" alone.

Third Stanza: Pleasure and Pain

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

The final movement includes the pair of opposites: feast/fast, success/failure, pleasure/pain. If one is feasting, one will be joined in "crowded" "halls." But while fasting, one will be passed by to fast alone.

When one is successful and giving of one bounty, others will want to be part of your circle, but one must face one's failures without outside comfort. The speaker exaggerates failure by metaphorically likening it to death: "no man can help you die."

Pleasure will afford a "long and lordly train," again suggesting that pleasure attracts. Pleasure's opposite "pain" has "narrow aisles" which each human being "one by one" must travel though without company.

The Rôle of Empathy

This poem may at first seem to make cold and heartless automatons out of human beings and their selfish behavior. One might ask: must one really suffer all these indignities alone? What about empathy? Do not certain human beings have an abundance of that quality?

Certainly, human suffering is addressed in the culture through charitable societies, and by individual empathetic acts. But no matter how much empathy and even sympathy a suffering mind/heart receives from others, ultimately that mind/heart must come to its equilibrium itself and alone.

Thus, the poem is offering a profound truth that society's charitable acts simply cannot assuage. It is the mind/heart itself that suffers these indignities, and it is the mind/heart alone that must find its way to the light that cures all, and no outside force can do that work for each mind/heart.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox Quotation

Ella Wheeler Wilcox Quotation

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes