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Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “Solitude” is about the relationship between the individual and the outside world. Wilcox wrote this poem after encountering a grieving woman on her way to Madison, Wisconsin. Despite her efforts, Wilcox was not able to comfort the woman over her loss. Distraught, Wilcox returned to her hotel and after looking at her lonely face in the mirror, began to write this poem.
The context of the poem suggests that what follows is not a parade of moral platitudes but a series of choices. If you laugh, sing, rejoice, or feast, the world will be drawn to you. If you weep, sigh, fast, or grieve, the world will abandon you. The poem is neither an anthem of positive thinking nor a dour account of existential loneliness. It is an invitation to move through the world with practicality and self-reliance.
About the poet
Ella Wheeler Wilcox was an American author and poet. She is well known for her works that are full of social criticism, in her poems she expresses sentiments of cheer and optimism in plainly written, rhyming verse. Her popular works include Poems of Passion (1883) and Solitude (1883).
Solitude means loneliness and it is the hard reality of life that a man has to live alone and die alone. In this poem, the Poetess reveals the real face of the people. This poem is a great satire on us, our thoughts, and our level of thinking. The Poetess points out a social evil. We cannot decline what the Poetess says to us in this poem. We should think deeply about this poem.
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.
In the first stanza, Wilcox tells the 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. Then 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 upset, human beings are not attracted to negativity, perhaps for fear it too may be shared.
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.
The speaker says that one would receive a response from the world or society, and happiness would be multiplied. In contrast, 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 rejoicing 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 long 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 is 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 Fasted 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.”