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.
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 nectar'd 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 large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
     Through the narrow aisles of pain.

Footnotes

  1. Wilcox’s control of sound in this line serves to effectively convey its meaning. On three of the four beats of the line, we hear the word “one,” or the similar sounding “on.” The march of ones imitates the marching file of solitary humans. This march evokes the poem’s title and central theme of solitude.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. This line serves as a key to understanding the poem’s theme. The “but” at the beginning of the line serves to counter or even negate the sentiment of the prior line. There is thus a sense of futility to the litany of positive outward expressions. After all, death waits for everyone and we will all meet it alone. This existential solitude is the poem’s central theme. Our solitary condition is not a reason to ignore the poem’s invitations to “laugh,” “sing,” and “rejoice.” It is simply the backdrop to all of our decisions.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. The word “fast” refers to the abstention of food, a common practice in certain religious orders. In the context of this line, there is a sense of mutual abstention, that both the individual and “the world” are going on without one another. On a subtle associative level, the word “fast” serves to quicken the world’s going.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The noun “gall” is an archaic synonym for bile, the secretion of the liver. According to the ancient Greek medical theory known as “Humorism,” bile is responsible for feelings of anger and sorrow. In this context, “life’s gall” refers to the inevitable sources of anger, sorrow, and bitterness we all must confront in life.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. The image of “nectar’d wine” may be a turn of phrase, evoking a wine that is as sweet to the senses as nectar. More broadly, the wine is a metaphor for a pleasant, pleasure-giving demeanour. The idea is that such a demeanour will inevitably attract people.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. Wilcox may be using “woe” for its archaic connotation, the pun that “woman is a woe to man.” The fact that Wilcox is a woman and that “they” refers to “men” suggests that this stanza may be a subtle account of relationships between men and women. In other words, men want pleasure from women, but none of their woes.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The internally rhyming “measure” and “pleasure” each carry an extra, unstressed syllable, which gives the line an overflowing feeling. This is appropriate, given the subject at hand: we get a sense of excess, of the “full measure.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. The word “rejoice” can be used in a couple of different, but related, ways. The verb “to rejoice” can mean to feel joyful. There is often a connotation of intent—to rejoice is to choose to express joy. This meaning fits in the context of the poem, which offers a kind of list of opposing choices to the reader. To rejoice can also mean to praise, another fitting definition. It certainly figures that “men will seek” someone who readily offers praise.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. Wilcox uses “care” in its original sense. The word originates from the Germanic “kara,” meaning “grief” or “trouble.” Thus, the line suggests that the vocal expression of grief literally and figuratively receives no echo or response from the world.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. In each stanza, the third and seventh lines are in tetrameter, containing four beats. The second and fourth beats of each of these lines rhyme internally. In the case of this line, this internal rhyme serves a direct thematic purpose. We hear the echoes of the “joyful sound” within the line itself in the rhyme of “bound” and “sound.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. The figure of one’s song being answered by the hills is poetic—joy begetting joy—but carries a literal meaning as well. Loud sounds emitted in valleys will produce echoes which ring from the surfaces of the hills, a form of “answer.” This phenomenon is further developed two lines later.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. Wilcox constructs much of this poem with imperative statements—such as “laugh,” “weep,” “sing”—and addresses the audience as an ambiguous “you.” Imperatives are commands, which could mean that Wilcox’s speaker is stating what “you” should do and then following these commands with the consequences of fulfilling or denying them. However, since imperatives are commands, they do not allow for deviations or nuanced actions. So, this presents the speaker’s claims as broad platitudes.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. Wilcox’s speaker claims that the earth not only must borrow happiness from others, but that it is plagued with its own troubles. Such a presentation of the world suggests that the speaker views it as a place where happiness is rare and suffering is common. While we shortly learn more about the speaker’s views, so far we could interpret the speaker’s claims as a call for “you” to bring laughter and mirth to the earth to help mitigate its myriad troubles.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. This is an example of personification, or attributing human qualities to nonhuman things. Personification serves to make things, like the earth, more sympathetic to humans, which can make it easier to form comparisons to seek understanding of the human condition. Here, the speaker attributes the earth with “sad” and “old” qualities and an ability to act with agency. (It “must borrow its mirth.”) By doing this, the speaker draws the earth into the human realm, portraying it as a melancholic entity that needs to draw on the happiness of others. This appears to add weight to the positive assertions that the speaker makes, emphasizing the ability of one’s actions to positively affect others.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. The noun “mirth” refers to a pleasurable feeling, such as enjoyment, gratification, or happiness. This word has also often been used to specifically refer to religious joy and heavenly bliss. The speaker indicates that the earth must borrow this feeling—presumably from us when we laugh, as indicated by the first line. Laughter and mirth, then, are depicted as representing a kind of spiritual happiness.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. The appearance of the word “alone” at the beginning of a poem titled “Solitude” should give readers pause. Titles often provide important context for overall themes in poems. Since “solitude” means the state of living or being alone, then we should look at how the speaker talks about this condition. In this line, weeping is depicted as a personal action, which suggests that something like grief, which can cause one to weep, is something that is felt on a personal level independent of others.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. Wilcox’s “Solitude” is one of her better known works largely in part due to this often-quoted first line. On the surface level, this statement appears to suggest that if you are happy, then the world will be happy with you. However, the title of the work is “Solitude” which suggests that inclusion, such as others sharing happiness with you, is not going to be the primary focus; in fact, “solitude” conveys a tone of melancholy, not happiness. Keep this discrepancy in mind as Wilcox advances her claims about solitude and the human condition.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. In Greek mythology, “nectar,” or ambrosia, is the food of the Gods on Mount Olympus. Mount Olympus was a place of excessive pleasure and comfort. In using this language, the speaker casts the positive side of life as an almost edenic existence. This allusion suggests that if one laughs instead of weeping, or rejoices instead of grieving, then they will enjoy the comfort of the gods on earth.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. The presence of “echoes” and a “shrinking voice” may remind the reader of the story of Echo and Narcissus. In this Greek myth, Echo, a woodland nymph, fell in love with Narcissus, the most beautiful youth in the land. Echo told everyone she met how lovesick she was over the man. The Goddess Hera grew impatient with the girl and cursed her so that she could only repeat the last words she heard. When Echo tried to tell Narcissus that she loved him, she could only repeat his cruel words back to him. When he left her, Echo crawled into a cave where she wasted away until she was only a voice. While Wilcox does not explicitly reference this myth, the images she uses allude to the tale and its theme: speaking too much about one’s heartache will only cause one to end up alone.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. The progression of platitudes in this poem can also be read as a description of the world as it is. Since the poem is titled “Solitude” and these platitudes describe interactions between people, the careful reader will notice that these platitudes are not the focus of the poem. Even though they dominate the majority of the lines, these descriptions of social interaction are mere distraction from the overall theme Wilcox portrays: everyone lives and dies alone.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff