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John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

How to Lift a Poem



“Laugh, and the World Laughs with You “Those lines begin "Solitude," first published in the February 25, 1883, issue of the New York Sun. The author, the true author, was Ella Wheeler. The inspiration for the poem came to her one a day in earlier in February when she was to attend the governor's inaugural ball in Madison, Wis.

Wheeler was on a train, in route to the celebration, when she noticed a young woman dressed in black sitting across the aisle from her. The woman was crying so 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, Wheeler was preparing for the inaugural ball when she looked at her own radiant face in the mirror and recalled the sorrowful widow on the train. 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.

Since the day the poem was originally published, its opening lines have frequently been misquoted as "Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Cry, and you cry alone."
Wheeler sent the poem to the Sun who paid her $5 for the work. In May, 1883, "Solitude" appeared in 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 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 reality, Wheeler was the daughter of a rural Wisconsin farmer and her exposure to the outside world was very limited. Condemnation from the critics served only to spark the public's imagination, and her book of poetry became a financial, if not critical success. Later that year, Wheeler married Robert Marius Wilcox and prepared to step out of the limelight.
However, in 1885 the celebrated author John A. Joyce produced the second edition of his work 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." Wilcox immediately challenged Joyce to produce evidence of his authorship and 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 Wilcox had authored the poem and published it in February of 1883, Joyce refused to abandon his claim that he was the poems author and throughout the rest of his life, he continued to reprint the poem as his own.

As a parting shot, Joyce had the first two lines of "Solitude" emblazoned on his tombstone in Oak Hill Cemetery in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.


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