Ella Wheeler Wilcox's "Solitude"
Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Introduction and Excerpt from "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.")
Excerpt from "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. . . .
To read the entire poem, please visit "Solitude" at The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine.
Reading of "Solitude"
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
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
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
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.
What About 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 doubt empathy? Do not certain human beings have an abundance of that quality?
Certainly, human suffering is addressed by society 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
Life Sketch of Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Born on November 5, 1850, in Rock County, Wisconsin, to Marcus and Sarah Wheeler, Ella Wheeler was the youngest of four children. The family relocated to Dane County, when Ella was two years old. The family remained in the town of Westport, and Ella lived there until she married in 1884.
After her marriage to Robert Wilcox, the couple moved to Connecticut. Ella's maternal great-grandfather had served in the Revolutionary War. Her mother wrote poetry, and Ella started writing poetry also.
Ella's whole family often read and studied Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Robert Burns, as well as the contemporary poets. The school that she attended is now named for her, The Ella Wheeler Wilcox School. She attended the University of Wisconsin for a short time but felt that university study was a waste of time.
The poet wanted to devoted herself to writing, and she wanted to make money to help her family. At age fourteen, she wrote prose pieces that were accepted by the New York Mercury.
As a professional writer, Ella wrote pieces for syndicated columns, and she became noted as a newspaper poet. The reporters for the New York American offered her a position as official poet at the royal funeral of Queen Victoria. Ella's poems were well loved in Britain and studied in British schools. Ella's occasional poem for the funeral is titled "The Queen's Last Ride."
"Solitude" and Other Poems
Ella Wheeler Wilcox's most famous poem is "Solitude," especially noted for the following oft quoted lines: "Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone."
The poem 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 essentially avers that while a negative attitude repulses others, the positive attracts them.
In " A Lovers' Quarrel," the speaker dramatizes her lover as the Sea, with whom she quarrels and then runs away to a Town. Town satisfies her for a while, but then she starts thinking about her love for the Sea, and decides that Sea is her true love and thus returns to him.
In " Go Plant a Tree," the speaker marvels at the glory of a tree; planting the tree makes one feel wonderful, and then watching it grow is even more special. The speaker claims, "Nature has many marvels; but a tree / Seems more than marvelous. It is divine." Rivers are "garrulous" but trees simply hold "pleasant converse with the winds and birds." And then the speaker compares the tree to rocks and decides, "Rocks are majestic; but, unlike a tree, / They stand aloof, and silent." Even the ocean does not compare favorably with a tree: "Of ocean billows breaking on the shore / There sounds the voice of turmoil. But a tree / Speaks ever of companionship and rest."
Reputation as a Poet
Although Ella Wheeler Wilcox was well known and even made a living by her writing, she has fallen out of favor with literary scholars. The New Critics judged her poetic contributions harshly. They disdained her didacticism and her sentimentality. She is often categorized as a popular rather than literary writer. However, Wilcox's poems are appreciated and even loved by readers who accidentally stumble upon them. Her poems speak with a truth and sincerity that gladdens the heart and mind.
The postmodern frame of mind that found nothing to praise and nothing to live for is responsible for throwing shade on poets who felt that their responsibility was to share the beauty of the world as well as the ugliness. As a matter of fact, the comparison of the negative and the positive can serve to emphasize that the positive is more attractive, better for the mind and heart and ultimately better for one's physical and mental health. But the postmodern mindset was/is having none of that; that mindset remains hellbent on raising the flag of nihilism over the literary landscape—like an angry adolescent it must dress itself in black and mock every positive aspect of life that makes life worth living.
The poetry of Ella Wheeler Wilcox could serve as a corrective to that postmodern blight on society. Restoring the reputation of Wilcox and other poets such as James Whitcomb Riley and John Greenleaf Whittier could go a long way to picking up the trash that has been flung far and wide across the literary landscape by the doomsayers.
© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes