Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Smiles by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

‘Smiles’ is a straightforward poem about the power of a positive attitude in life. The speaker, who may very well be Wilcox herself, addresses anyone who might be hearing or reading these words. They tell the reader that carrying a smile on their face is the only way they’re going to be able to get through life successfully, especially when confronted with difficulties. Wilcox, as was often the case in her poetry, did not use complex language. The stanzas are very easy to read and universally relatable. 


Summary of Smiles

‘Smiles’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox is a simple, uplifting poem that is meant to inspire the reader to face their life head-on with a smile.

In the first two stanzas of ‘Smiles,’ the speaker lays out the first part of their argument in regards to why smiling is such an important thing to do. If one smiles, then they’re going to be able to lighten their load in life, at least mentally. They can improve the lives of those they meet on the street and banish “Care”. 

In the last parts of the poem, the speaker emphasizes the fact that its important to smile even if one is feeling sorrow. This is the only way to battle it and come out on the other side as the victor. 


Themes in Smiles

The themes in ‘Smiles’ are evident throughout the poem. Wilcox was interested in exploring happiness/sorrow, perseverance, and success. All of these things are related to the way that one addresses their day to day life. If you leave your home to go about your tasks in a gloomy state of mind, then you’ll never reach the success that other people do. Those who want to succeed face their work head-on with a smile on their face. The speaker also asserts that smiling is something that will help others just as much as it’ll help “you”. Those who are living harder lives that “you” are, will benefit from seeing a smile as they walk down the street. 


Structure and Form

‘Smiles’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCBEFGE, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The meter is also quite regular. The even-numbered lines all contain five syllables while the odd-numbered lines have eight. The odd-numbered lines are written in what is known as a trochaic terameter. This means that the lines are made up of four sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed and the second of which is unstressed. This pattern is maintained, with several exceptions, throughout the poem. The first line is a great example. 


Literary Devices 

Wilcox makes use of several literary devices in ‘Smiles’. These include but are not limited to examples of caesurae, enjambment, and alliteration. The first of these, caesurae, are seen when the poet uses punctuation or meter to create a pause in the middle of a line. The first line of the first and seconds stanzas is a good example. Another is the third line of the third stanza. It reads: “Frowns are thorns, and smiles are blossoms”. 

Enjambment is another formal device that is concerned with the transitions between lines. For example, Wilcox does not use end-punctuation when moving between lines five and six of the third stanza. In fact, the phrase that starts in the fifth line is concluded in the sixth. There is another good example in the transition between lines one and two of the third stanza. 


Analysis of Smiles

Stanza One 

Smile a little, smile a little, 

As you go along, 

Not alone when life is pleasant, 

But when things go wrong.

Care delights to see you frowning, 

Loves to hear you sigh; 

Turn a smiling face upon her –

Quick the dame will fly.

In the first stanza of ‘Smiles,’ the speaker begins with a line that is later repeated in the second stanza. It reads: “Smile a little, smile a little”. There is repetition within the line itself, and in regards to the fact that the entire line is used again. The speaker describes smiling as a defense mechanism, something that one can do in order to make their darker times easier to withstand. The poet personifies “Care” in this stanza as well. By doing this, she is suggesting that it is a force that has feelings and drives. It loves to hear someone “sigh” and “frown” when times are bad. But, if one turns a “smiling face upon her” then she’ll fly away. 


Stanza Two 

Smile a little, smile a little, 

All along the road; 

Every life must have its burden, 

Every heart its load.

Why sit down in gloom and darkness

With your grief to sup? 

As you drink Fate’s bitter tonic, 

Smile across the cup.

The first line of the first stanza is repeated at the beginning of the second stanza. Here, Wilcox makes a similar argument for smiling throughout one’s life. It helps to lighten the load on one’s heart. There’s no reason, she says, to sit down “in gloom and darkness” and revel in grief. It is much better to stand up and smile in the face of fate. 


Stanza Three 

Smile upon the troubled pilgrims

Whom you pass and meet; 

Frowns are thorns, and smiles are blossoms

Oft for weary feet.

Do not make the way seem harder

By a sullen face; 

Smile a little, smile a little, 

Brighten up the place.

The third stanza is the first not to begin with the refrain line. But, the line still starts with the word “Smile” an example of anaphora. Its’ not just “you” who smiling helps, the speaker says in these lines. When you smile it helps the “troubled pilgrims” on the street. She uses a metaphor to compare “Frowns” to “thorns” and “smiles” to “blossoms”. The refrain appears at the end of this stanza, asking the reader to smile a little and brighten up their world and other’s worlds. Throughout this poem, the language is quite simple. The syntax is direct and the diction is pretty straightforward, although not quite colloquial. Readers should have no trouble interpreting what the poet is getting at. 


Stanza Four 

Smile upon your undone labour; 

Not for one who grieves

O’er his task waits wealth or glory; 

He who smiles achieves.

Though you meet with loss and sorrow

In the passing years, 

Smile a little, smile a little, 

Even through your tears.

In the final eight lines of the poem, the speaker maintains the same themes that they’ve been interested in throughout the text. They tell the reader to smile upon “undone labour”. Don’t worry over the future because grieving will get “one” no where. Those who “grieve” over their tasks do not reach “wealth or glory”. Smiling will allow you to reach your goals as well as improve your life and the lives of others. It is important, the speaker concludes, to smile through the sorrow and “Even through your tears”. 


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Smiles’ should also consider reading some of Wilcox’s other best-known poems. These include ‘The Year,’ ‘Love’s Language,’ and The Word’. The latter describes the ways in which words can be interpreted and the importance of speaking directly from the heart. Some other related poems include Happiness’ by Jane Kenyon, ‘The Light Gatherer’ by Carol Ann Duffy, and I measure every Grief I meet’ by Emily Dickinson.  The latter is a moving and deeply sad poem that describes a speaker’s understanding of her grief and that of others.

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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.
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