Laugh, and the World Laughs With You
These lines begin "Solitude," first published in the Feb. 25, 1883, issue of the New York Sun. The author was Ella Wheeler, and the inspiration for the poem came to Miss Wheeler on a day in early February, when she was to attend the governor's inaugural ball in Madison, Wis. She was on a train, enroute to the celebration, when she noticed a young woman dressed in black sitting across the aisle from her. Since the woman was crying, Miss Wheeler sat next to her and sought to comfort her for the rest of the journey. When they arrived, the poet was so depressed that she wondered how she could possibly attend the scheduled festivities. Later on, with the incident behind her, Miss Wheeler prepared for the inaugural ball. As she looked at her own radiant face in the mirror, she suddenly recalled the sorrowful widow. It was at that moment that she wrote the opening lines of "Solitude":
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
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."
(In actuality, Miss Wheeler was the daughter of a Wisconsin farmer, and her exposure to the "real" world was very limited.) Condemnation from the critics served only to spark the public's imagination, and the poetry book enjoyed great financial success. When Miss Wheeler married Robert Marius Wilcox, she prepared to step out of the limelight.
However, in 1885 author John A. Joyce produced the second edition of his A Checkered Life, a book of personal reminiscences. At the end of the book was a collection of Joyce's poems, one of which was titled "Laugh and the World Laughs with You." The poem was, word for word, a reprint of "Solitude." Mrs. Wilcox immediately challenged Joyce to produce evidence of his authorship. And she offered to donate $5,000 to any reputable charity of Joyce's choosing-the sum to be given in his name-if he could prove that she was not the actual author of the poem. While no one else disputed the fact that Mrs. Wilcox had authored the poem, Joyce refused to abandon his claim. Throughout the rest of his life, he continued to reprint the poem as his own. Before he died in 1915, he had the first two lines of "Solitude" emblazoned on his tombstone in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Ever since the poem was originally published in 1883, its opening lines have frequently been misquoted as "Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Cry, and you cry alone."