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.