‘The Year’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox is a six stanza poem that is divided into sets of two lines, also known as couplets. Wilcox chose to structure this piece with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of aa bb cc, and so on throughout the six couplets.
A reader should also take note of the metrical pattern. Wilcox chose to use iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats or syllables. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. The rhythm is especially important in the last two stanzas in which Wilcox lists out emotional attributes that are universal in their relatability.
One of the most important elements of the text is the emphasis Wilcox places on pointing out contrasts in life. Throughout the poem, she places opposing elements of life together, such as laughing and weeping and hoping and dying. It is with these good and bad parts of life in mind that she presents a fuller, more realistic picture of the “new year.”
Summary of The Year
The poem begins with the speaker asking if there is anything in the world that can be new. Even though it is a new year, that does not mean anything has changed. In fact, the speaker makes the case over the next five couplets that nothing changes at all. First, she speaks on the presence of dreams and the way they lead one through life, ideally, to eventual knowledge. She also presents laughter and weeping as opposite, but equally present parts of life.
She goes on in the second half of the poem to list out additional parts of life in order to show their connection and simultaneous presence. The poem concludes with Wilcox’s speaker stating that everything she mentioned is a part of the “burden of life.” It exists in every year, throughout time.
Analysis of The Year
What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That’s not been said a thousand times?
In the first stanza of ‘The Year’, the speaker begins by asking the reader, and her intended listener a question. It is clear she does not expect an answer, instead, she carries on in an effort to answer it herself. The question is presented at the start of the poem in order to allow the reader to think over its meaning. These first lines should be returned to throughout the reading of the text in order to recenter oneself around the main theme.
The speaker asks “What can be said” in this new year that “has not been said a thousand times.” Immediately a reader will know that this piece is concerned with the progression of time and what it means for a fresh year to start. The speaker is wondering what in “rhymes” can be said new, or more simply, what kind of new ideas or philosophizing can take place that would make the year seem like what it’s supposed to be: new.
The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.
In the next two lines, she presents the first answer to the question. The statements she makes are broad and the parts of life she touches on universal. It is likely Wilcox was hoping to speak on what is normally seen as the most important part of life and in a way, trivialize them. This is done by showing the reader that life, death, happiness, and depression occur every year, over and over.
At first, this perspective seems dark, and nihilistic, but that is not necessarily the case. In the fourth line of the poem, she speaks on the connection between knowing and dreaming. To her, they are interconnected. What we think we know, or want to know, becomes knowledge as we age. There is a certain romanticism to these lines that is appealing.
We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.
The same romantic tone is present in the third stanza but it is somewhat compromised by the “sing-song-like” rhyme scheme. The rhyming words “light” and “night” trivialize her statement, making it seem disingenuous. The same can be said for many of the couplets. In these lines, she describes how everyone rises and lies down. People laugh for a time and then weep for a time. It is a cycle like any other.
We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.
The fourth stanza of ‘The Year’ presents another relatable contrast. As was stated above, the lines are universal in that they transcend one particular cultural or societal background. Every person has known the “sting” of the world and the desire for “wings” or uplifting happiness and freedom.
Wilcox’s speaker also describes “hug[ging] the world.” This phrase is not as clear as those which have proceeded. She is speaking on how “We” are always seeking out the best in the world, and attempting to draw it closer to us. It is this kind of emotional and mental state which can end with a “sting.” Something comes out differently than “we” expected.
We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our brides, we sheet our dead.
Wilcox presents the reader with a list of emotions and actions in the fifth and sixth stanzas. She speaks of the human race, all together, as “We.” This communal “We” lives through “love” and weddings and the “wooing” of others. Across the world, brides are “wreathe[d]” in flowers and the dead are covered in a sheet.
The contrast of these images is interesting. Wilcox is placing love and death as opposites but connects sides of the spectrum of life.
We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that’s the burden of the year.
In the last two lines, the speaker finishes out her list of transcendent emotional events. There is laughing and weeping as well as hope and fear. The two sets are presented as opposites.
In the final lines, the speaker wraps up the description of the realities of life by saying all this, the good and the bad, are the “burden of the year.” It does not matter if it is a new year or an old, everything she listed should be expected.