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.
Solitude Ella Wheeler WilcoxLaugh, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The overarching theme of ‘Solitude’ is the contrast between social reactions to human emotions, specifically happiness and sorrow.
The poem offers a skeptical view of human relationships, suggesting they are often conditional on emotional states.
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.
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.