Thursday, 22 November 2012

Poetry, Plagiarists and Literary Truisms.

What better occupation on a filthy day like today (Thanksgiving for my US friends, but a very ordinary, very wet, very blowy day here in the Marches) than to sit in my cosy study, surrounded by piles of women’s poetry anthologies, current and from long ago, looking for a couple of poems for tomorrow’s meeting of the poetry group. Although I have four weeks to do so from one meeting to the next, and although I read poetry most days, I always delay the search until the very last minute.

So, tomorrow’s subject is women’s poetry, and I have just come across the lines “Laugh and the world laughs with you, Weep and you weep alone.” Having always thought that there were no further lines, that that was it, and that these lines probably originated with some hoary old chap, much given to trite aphorisms (aphorism: a tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion), I decided to follow my nose and find out.

Far from it! Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919), was neither hoary nor a chap, but a farmer’s daughter from Wisconsin, a bonny lass, who wrote the poem after she had met a women on a train who was dressed in mourning and weeping pitifully. Ella herself was on her way to attend the governor’s inaugural ball in Madison, Wis.,  a highly celebratory affair.

She sent the poem to the Sun and received $5 for her effort. In May, 1883, "Solitude" appeared in Miss Wheeler's book Poems of Passion. While most of the book was second-rate verse, it received much attention from the press, because readers assumed that Miss Wheeler, a single woman, had herself experienced all that she had written about. Consequently, she and her book were called "indecent," "shocking," and "disgraceful.”

Naturally, this condemnation ensured that the book became a financial  success.

Ella Wheeler married Robert Marius Wilcox and prepared to live a blamelessly domestic life, without further notoriety. Had it not been for the audacious theft of her poem by the author John A. Joyce, that’s how it would have ended. Joyce stole her poem, word for word, and passed it off as his own. Ella challenged him to prove that she had not written it, but Joyce refused and even had the first two lines of ‘Solitude’ emblazoned on his tombstone.

Whichever one of them wrote it - and I vote for Ella, the story is just too delicious - here it is:


Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow it's 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 pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

The two lines "There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life's gall” would make an excellent summary of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, not the most riveting of the Bard’s plays, which took a lot longer to sit through than a quick read-through of Ella’s, ahem, masterpiece.


  1. je hebt zo te lezen een fijne dag gehad.

  2. i hope my writing gets labeled indescent one day...haha...i rather enjoyed it myself...

  3. Thanks for welcoming me into your cosy redoubt. And thanks for the story! (and complete piece) Today she would have been a blogger with time-stamped proof of her authorship! By the by, I'm NOT a numerology person. I sort of published that post on a lark, curious of what folks might say. Your comment was SO Friko and SO delightful!
    I do admit to a fondness for nine (and her subsidiary triple 3 - which no one comments on in it's fish incarnation.....I'm rambling. I'll let you get back to your reading.

    Warm Aloha to YOU
    from Honolulu
    Comfort Spiral

    ~ > < } } ( ° >

    > < 3 3 3 ( ' >


    1. I love the story behind this poem, and I am charmed that the poet is from Wisconsin, where I am from. Neat to finally read the entire poem.

  4. "Sing and the hills will answer" Why does that remind me of The Sound of Music?

    Contrary to the poem, I find that when you're sad, people quite often rally round to comfort and share the grief. Am I imagining that?

  5. Ich finde, dass es stimmt, was sie sagt.

    Dir einen tollen Freitag.

  6. That poem is so true and I've discovered this myself now that I am rejoycing. People are attracted to a smiling face and an upbeat voice. Nobody wants to steep down and reach into the depths that you might have found yourself in. It is a lonely place best to get out of as quickly as possible. Thanks for posting about this. You do always hit the proper note. xox

  7. And then you continued on your search for poetry...

  8. Ahhh now dear lady, was it William S alone who wrote about the misanthrope? Or was it Thomas Middleton who penned most of the works and then passed it along to a yet unknown 3rd party to finish off? Three writers, three distinctive different styles, not one of them consulted the others on the rather tedious plot that is Timon of Athens.

  9. Poetry is not really "my" literary genre, but I love learning such background information. This was very interesting, thank you!

  10. Frico, you've found a wise poem, I've read it and loved these words:
    "But one by one we must all file on
    Through the narrow aisles of pain."
    Thank you!

  11. Well, then, Friko, for your sake as much as in response to Ella's masterpiece*, I will try to be jolly this morning. I chose not to go with everyone else on the Vienna tour. I'm happily ensconced in the ship's lounge with my computer, knowing my husband will return eventually with wonderful photos.
    Am now the only passenger on the ship while everyone else is seeing Vienna. However, I did fall in love last night, with a gorgeous Austrian village called Durnstein, on the side of a mountain with a ruined castle above and the Danube below. I was out there for more than an hour of oohing and ahhing. And walking on cobblestones...ouch.
    If one of our options today had been to hear the Vienna Boys' Choir, I'd have dragged myself to it, but nothing else is tempting enough.
    *I think she wrote it, too.

  12. Thanks for this informative post Friko - never realised the lines were part of a poem.

    Anna :o]

  13. Hi Friko - that sounds a very likely story .. and I love the way the poem ties together and evokes our way of life ... 'succeed and give, and it helps you live' - be of cheer, the world is here ... fortunately the world still holds good samaritans who help in times of stress and fear ... but many more join in when there's laughter around - loved this .. thank you - I hope you're sufficiently far enough away from the rivers of rain. Enjoy poetry day today ... great poem of choice - Hilary

  14. equally unaware that there were other lines - would be nice to think that she wrote it

  15. I vote for Ella as well. ~Mary

  16. I wonder how many other wondrous inventions -- both literary and physical -- were actually thought up by women? Can't you just see it? Cave woman says gently to Cave man -- "Dear, don't you think the wheels might turn more easily if you clipped off the corners?" Ah well. We'll probably never know! Thanks for a fun post. xoxo

  17. There's an inspiring little song for children called "Smiles And Frowns" which goes :
    Oh Peterkin Pout and Gregory Grout are two little goblins black! Full oft from my house I've driven them out , but somehow they still come back . And one says Shall , the other says Shan't , and one says Must and one says Can't ! Oh , Peterkin Pout and Gregory Grout , I pray you now keep out !
    But Samuel Smile and Lemuel Laugh are two little fairies bright ; they're always ready for fun and chaff , and sunshine is their delight . And one says Please, the other Do, and both together say , I Love You! So Lemuel Laugh and Samuel Smile , come in and tarry a while .

  18. P.S. And naturally , it was written by a woman , Laura Richards .

  19. Interesting that Joyce refused to back down, though I guess not surprising. Wonder what your poetry group will make of it.

  20. I never heard the rest of the poem. Very interesting that it was stolen. (I'm on her side, too.) This was very interesting. Thanks! :)

  21. Why am I not surprised or skeptical? Of course Ella wrote it!

  22. I had absolutely no idea of the full story behind the lines either. It's marvellous!

  23. Love the complete poem and the story of Ella! I agree with you...I go with her

  24. Who knew there was a complete poem behind the couplet(sorry, you'd already used 'aphorism') - and such a story of dastardly deeds behind it??!! At risk of sounding like a nasty sexist, the poem doesn't sound like something a pompous man would write!!

  25. Interesting back story, and it seems these lines are particularly apropos to the season: Feast, and your halls are crowded; Fast, and the world goes by.

  26. Yes, I say Ella too. It does not sound like a poem a man would write.

  27. For sure it had to be her! And I'm not surprised that you take till the last minute to get to task. It just seems the way we work best.
    Pressure tends to spark something and fire up the synapses to do a more brilliant job! Bravo on this post:) Mrash weather and a cosy setting just adds to the charm.

  28. Thank you for the introduction of this poem and the poet. Smiling face is contagious. Suffering in silence or venting to let go, that’s a question.


  29. I've heard the quotation many times but had no idea where it came from. Thanks for enlightening me.
    And using scandal to boost book sales - now there's a novel idea!

  30. I don't think I've ever read the entire poem before. I agree, it does not seem something a man would write.

  31. That is the second time I came across that part of the poem today. The other was in a writing assignment for school. (Another student quoted it.)
    Thanks for sharing the history or the poem. :-)

  32. Hallo Friko,
    finde ich schön, dass Du Dich in Deinem Blog auch mit englischer Literatur befasst. Für Literatur interessiere ich mich sehr, allerdings ist England bislang kaum dabei. Oliver Twist von Charles Dicken habe ich vor längerer Zeit gelesen und vieles von Sherlock Holmes (A.C. Doyle) (auf Deutsch). Bei ausländischer Literatur bin ich Frankreich-lastig (weil ich ein paar Ecken von Frankreich kennen gelernt habe). Z.B. Simenon, Camus, Balzac, Cocteau ... Ich werde mal ein wenig googeln, um mich über Wilcox zu informieren.

    Gruß Dieter

  33. This was a great story. I loved reading the entire poem and the history behind it. I vote for Ella also.

  34. I've always heard that saying and never knew the legacy behind it. It's wonderful to hear the whole thing -- I think I need to print that one out and put it over my work table or in my journal or both! Yes, Ms. Ella gets my vote -- so do you!

  35. Dear Friko, fascinating on this chilly morning here in Missouri, USA. I wonder why Ella couldn't prove that she'd written the poem before this usurper! Peace.

  36. Friko, thanks for showing this poem. I would never have guessed the author or how the whole poem went. I like the poem, as sad as it is - Dave


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