Summary and Analysis
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, born in 1850, is an American poet and writer best known for her 1883 poetry collection, Poems of Passion, which contains her poem “Solitude.” In this poem, Wilcox employs contrasts between the positive and the negative experiences in human nature. For instance, happiness is noticed and celebrated, whereas sadness and grief is largely ignored by others. “Solitude” suggests that although we must bear our hardships alone, we should understand that happiness and grief are part of the human condition and remain resilient in the face of that fact.
“Solitude” has three eight-line stanzas and relies on a variation on common meter, a rhyme scheme in which the even lines rhyme, and internal rhyme. Each stanza has an end-stopped line—ended with a period—on the fourth and eighth lines.
“Solitude” is a highly readable, accessible poem that operates through contrasting language. Furthermore, the poem’s speaker addresses the audience directly, including several imperative verbs such as “laugh,” “weep,” and “sigh.” These imperatives serve not only as commands but also as platitudes that are broad and easy to interpret.
The First Stanza
Stanza one depicts a personified earth and introduces the poem’s main theme of the inescapable solitude that humanity faces when experiencing hardship and death. Line one is the most well-known and often quoted line of “Solitude”: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” Upon first reading, this line may give the impression of inclusion and levity. However, “Solitude” is meant to depict the melancholy parts of human nature. Line two contrasts line one with the phrase “Weep, and you weep alone.” In Line three, the speaker suggests that the “sad old earth must borrow its mirth,” or happiness, from humanity's happiness. However, line four reveals that the earth cannot alleviate humanity's sadness, because it has enough of its own troubles to deal with.
In lines five and six, the speaker gives readers another contrast between singing and sighing. The speaker claims, “Sing and the hills will answer,” followed by, “Sigh, it is lost on the air.” Showing your sadness with a sigh will not result in any answers or help from the world. Instead, it will be largely ignored. Lines seven and eight elaborate on how the earth shrinks away from caring for humans if they are experiencing negative emotions.
The Second Stanza
Stanza two focuses on other humans’ reactions to an individual’s sadness. Lines one and two create another dichotomy; “men,” or humans, wish to be around you if you “rejoice,” but if you “grieve,” they leave you. In line three, the speaker claims that “they want full measure of all your pleasure.” In line four, the speaker contrasts that view by claiming others will decline your “woe,” or distress.
In line five, the speaker claims, “Be glad, and your friends are many.” The speaker follows this with another contrast in line six: “Be sad, and you lose them all.” In line seven, the speaker argues that humanity will not “decline your nectar’d wine.” The phrase “nectar’d wine” is an allusion to ambrosia, or the food of the Greek gods. The speaker here attaches heavenliness, or divinity, to happiness. Those around you will want to share in the heavenly essence of happiness, but they will not want to “drink life’s gall,” or life's negative aspects, with you when they inevitably arrive.
The Third Stanza
Stanza three focuses on solitude in death. Lines one to three point out that a person’s choosing to be happy is what helps one live. In contrast, line four states “no man can help you die.” This line illustrates how death is a solitary act. The speaker shows that not only must woe and grief be borne alone, so must death.
The second half of the stanza places pleasure, life, and death into physical spaces. For example, in line five, the speaker describes the happy and enjoyable aspects of life as the “halls of pleasure.” In contrast, line eight describes the negative, solitary aspects of life and death as “the narrow aisles of pain.” Pleasure takes place in a “hall” which is generally a large space where many can congregate; meanwhile, pain takes place in a “narrow aisle,” which denotes the forced smallness and confinement to such feelings. Line six further elaborates on the “halls of pleasure,” by claiming there is room in it for a “large and lordly train,” which can either mean a long and luxurious section of clothing or a large group of people. Last, in lines seven and eight, the speaker claims that “one by one we must all file on,” through those “narrow aisles of pain.” Line seven reiterates the solitude humans face through its internal rhyme and repetition of the word “one.” This sense of isolation again reflects the poem’s main theme and argument that everyone must experience life’s hardships, including death, in solitude.