Ella Wheeler Wilcox

‘Solitude’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox describes the connection between one’s outlook on life and the friends and community one attracts. 


Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Nationality: American

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) was an American author and poet, known for "Solitude."

She was an advocate for animal rights and vegetarianism, and had an interest in spiritualism.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Sorrow must be experienced individually.

Speaker: Someone observing human behavior.

Emotions Evoked: Happiness, Joyfulness

Poetic Form: Octave

Time Period: 20th Century

The poem is a poignant exploration of the duality of human emotion and its social ramifications. It uses elegant rhymes and accessible language to convey its themes.

This beautiful Ella Wheeler Wilcox poem is known for its wide reliability and powerful message. The poet uses consistent examples of rhyme to highlight the experiences one has with others and those one has to contend with on their own.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

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 pleasureFor a large and lordly train,But one by one we must all file onThrough the narrow aisles of pain.

Summary of Solitude

‘Solitude’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox describes the connection between one’s outlook on life and the friends and community one attracts.

The poem begins with the speaker making five statements regarding how the “world” will react depending on whether you “Laugh” or “Weep.” Someone who is happy and upbeat is going to attract friends, while someone who “Sigh[s]” and weeps will not.

Through the next two stanzas, the speaker tries to make clear that one should do whatever possible to maintain a happy life surrounded by those who increase that happiness. Sadness will breed nothing but solitude.

The poem concludes with the speaker adding that pain and death happen to everyone, but they will always be faced alone. 

Structure and Form

‘Solitude’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines or octaves. Each of these octaves follows a consistent rhyme scheme of ABCBDEFE. While the scheme remains the same, the end sounds alternate as the poet saw fit. A reader should also take note of the repeating moments in which Wilcox makes use of internal rhymes.

A perfect example appears in the third line of the first stanza with the words “earth” and “mirth.” The same kind of rhyme also appears in the seventh line with “bound” and “sound.” These rhymes can also be found in the third and seventh lines of the second stanza and the third line of the third stanza. 

Literary Devices

In this poem, the poet uses a few different literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example: “be” in stanza two.
  • Contrast: The poem extensively uses contrast to juxtapose happiness with sorrow, companionship with solitude, and success with failure. This highlights the conditional nature of societal interactions and relationships.
  • Imagery: This can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions that should trigger the reader’s senses. For example, phrases like “the hills will answer” or “the narrow aisles of pain” offer tangible analogies for intangible emotions.

Analysis of Solitude 

Stanza One 

Lines 1-4

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.

Wilcox begins what came to be known as her most popular poem with two very striking lines. Her speaker is making a pronouncement about how the world either accepts or pushes away human emotions. The first line tells a reader that if one were to laugh, then the world would “laugh with you.” This statement is meant to appeal on multiple levels in that happiness within oneself creates happiness in others. 

The second line adds a more complicated dimension to the relationship between humans and society. Here, she describes the opposite emotion, sadness displayed through weeping. If one were to “Weep,” it would happen alone. People do not flock to the side of someone who is upset; human beings are not attracted to negativity, perhaps for fear it too may be shared. 

In the next two lines of ‘Solitude,’ the speaker rearranges the two previous statements to show how the “world,” meaning the rest of humanity, deals with emotion. The earth is described as being “sad and old.” It does not have a well of happiness to draw from, so it must seek “mirth” somewhere else. This is why it “laughs with you.” In regards to sadness, the speaker says that the earth has enough sadness without taking in other people’s troubles. This is a very perceptive generalized statement about how many people view the problems of others. No one wants the burden of someone else’s unhappiness if it can be avoided. 

Lines 5-8

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 following statement acts in the same way as the previous one. First, the speaker says that if you were to “sing,” then the “hills” would “answer.” One would receive a response from the world or society, and happiness would be multiplied. In contrast, if you were to “Sigh,” it would be “lost on the air.” The sound and the emotion dissipate without anyone acknowledging or certainly repeating it. 

The first stanza concludes with the two emotions being translated into sounds. The sound of singing will “bound” like a joyful echo while the sigh will be ignored. 

Stanza Two 

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.

In the next set of eight lines of ‘Solitude,’ the speaker presents another five statements that outline how the world at large reacts to positivity and negativity. The first line says that if you are to spend your days “Rejoic[ing]” then others will “seek you” out and want to spend time with you. She once again presents a contrast that if you “Grieve,” then the same men will “turn and go.” These people do not want “your woe” but are happy to take on “your pleasure.” 

The speaker gives the reader some advice in the next lines that if you want to have friends, then you need to be “glad.” If you are not, then you are going to “lose them all.” In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker describes how if you are happy and drink “nectared wine,” then you are never going to be short on a friend to drink it with. Continuing the metaphor of drinking, she states that “life’s gall” must be consumed alone. 

Stanza Three 

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 large and lordly train,

But one by one we must all file on

Through the narrow aisles of pain.

In the final stanza of ‘Solitude,’ the speaker presents her final set of comparisons between what a happy life and a sad one are like and the reactions they provoke. She begins by utilizing another comparison to the way meals can bring people together. If one was to hold a “Feast,” then their halls would be “crowded.” Just as if one“Fast[ed]” then the whole world would pass by. These two examples are meant as metaphors for a larger way of being in everyday life. A welcoming community, companionship, and happiness are going to inspire even more of the same. 

The following lines are different than those which proceeded them. In the last section, she makes larger statements about life and death and the way that humans deal with pain. She describes how success and a willingness to “give” will help one live a longer life, but there will be no one there when you “die.” Similarly, the pain has to be faced alone. No one wants to pile onto a “train” that is headed for that kind of unhappiness. The world would much rather gather in a “hall…of pleasure.” 


What is the central theme of the poem?

The overarching theme of ‘Solitude’ is the contrast between social reactions to human emotions, specifically happiness and sorrow.

What is the tone of this poem?

The tone of this poem is observant and melancholic. The poet’s speaker uses blunt realism throughout this piece and does not hesitate to point out the less flattering aspects of human behavior.

What does the poem have to say about relationships?

The poem offers a skeptical view of human relationships, suggesting they are often conditional on emotional states.

What does the title ‘Solitude’ signify?

The title encapsulates the poem’s essence, which focuses on the isolation often accompanying sorrow or hardship. It serves as a central motif around which the other themes revolve.

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Ella Wheeler Wilcox poems. For example:

  • Artist’s Life – describes the personal and emotional connection a speaker has to Strauss’ composition, Artist’s Life.
  • Bleak Weather – describes the coming of winter and how the newly “bleak” days might impact a relationship.
  • I Love You – describes the passionate, warm, and youthful love that exists between a speaker and her intended listener.

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Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox was known for her approachable, relatable poetry that often delved into emotional and social themes. 'Solitude' is a prime example of how she utilized simple yet impactful language to discuss complex emotional experiences. Her work often dealt with life's ups and downs in a way that made the reader feel understood and less alone, even when discussing the loneliness inherent in sorrow.
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20th Century

While Ella Wheeler Wilcox actually belongs to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, her poetry often resonates with the themes explored by 20th-century poets. Her work is known for examining social dynamics and emotional states in a rapidly changing world.
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Ella Wheeler Wilcox, an American poet, contributes to a tradition of American poetry that is deeply engaged with social and emotional issues. 'Solitude' fits within this tradition as a work that speaks to the American values of individualism and self-reliance, particularly when it comes to facing life's challenges.
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This piece outlines the journey of life through its various emotional states, from happiness to sorrow. The poem states that while people may accompany you during the happy moments, when it comes to facing challenges or traversing you are mostly on your own.
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The poem doesn't directly discuss romantic love, but it implies the conditional love of friendships and societal relationships. In 'Solitude', love seems to be conditional on happiness and joy.
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The poem offers a somewhat cynical view of human relationships, portraying them as largely opportunistic. People are shown as willing to share in your joys but reluctant to participate in your sorrows. The poem questions the depth and commitment of such relationships.
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In this Wilcox poem, happiness is portrayed as a social magnet. The world is willing to partake in your happiness but is unwilling to share your sorrow. This could be seen as a critique of society's obsession with happiness, often at the expense of acknowledging and dealing with pain.
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Joyfulness in this poem serves as the flip side of sorrow, attracting people like a magnet. The world amplifies joy, making it a communal experience, in stark contrast to the loneliness that accompanies sorrow.
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The poem offers a broad commentary on human behavior and social tendencies. It paints a picture that, while not flattering, resonates with many people's experiences: that humanity at large is more willing to share in your successes than in your failures.
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This poem celebrates individual experiences, especially when it comes to dealing with sorrow. The poem underscores that each person must face their own "narrow aisles of pain," suggesting that these are individual trials that define us.
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The poem takes a holistic view of life, acknowledging both its highs and lows. Importantly, it argues that both joy and sorrow are integral aspects of life, but how they are socially accepted varies significantly.
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The title of the poem encapsulates its essence, focusing on the isolation that often accompanies sorrow. It suggests that when facing difficulties or emotional lows, one is often left to navigate these challenges alone.
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The structure of the poem, consisting of octaves, lends itself well to the themes Wilcox explores. Each stanza is like a self-contained lesson, making the poem easy to digest while still offering depth in its observations.
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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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