Stevenson, Burton Egbert, 1872-
Famous single poems and the controversies which have raged around them.
Freeport, NY : Books for Libraries Press, [1971]. p. 225-242.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
   Weep, and you weep alone,
For 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 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 large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
   Through the narrow aisles of pain.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox


In May, 1883, there was published at Chicago a thin little volume containing about fifty poems of a very second-rate quality which, in the ordinary course of events, would have quickly dropped from sight and been forgotten. But some adroit advertising, combined with an astounding absence of humor on the part of certain editors and reviewers, changed all that, and this little book not only made a great splash in the literary mill-pond, but convinced many Americans for all time that its author was an abandoned creature, a slave to passions quite oriental in their character, and the heroine of various torrid love adventures.

The book bore the daring title Poems of Passion, but it's author, far from being an adventuress, was a little Wisconsin girl named Ella Wheeler, the daughter of a poor farmer, who had lived all her life in the cramped environment of a tiny hamlet called Johnson Centre, whose knowledge of the world was bounded by a few short visits to Madison and Milwaukee, and whose acquaintance with literature was confined to the menus furnished by the New York Mercury and the New York Ledger, and to the novels of Ouida, Mary J. Holmes and Mrs. Southworth--with a later smattering of Gautier, Shakespeare, Swinburne and Byron.

All this is evident enough in the book itself, for the verses it contained were exactly the sort of sentimental rot that a Mary J. Holmes heroine would write; but most readers jumped to the conclusion that Miss Wheeler must herself have undergone the emotional experiences which she described, and her image as a Woman with a Past was then and there fixed permanently in the public mind.

The volume had started off with the immense advantage of a lot of advertising such as is now supplied by the Vice Society to certain fortunate books. McClurg, of Chicago, had declined to publish it on the ground that it was immoral; Miss Wheeler, quite outraged, told a friend in Milwaukee about it, and this friend in turn told one of the Milwaukee papers, which there-upon published a column article headed,

The Scarlet City by the Lake Shocked by a Badger Girl,
whose Verses out-Swinburne Swinburne and out-Whitman, Whitman.

Another Chicago publisher, less fastidious than McClurg, at once saw the opportunity to make some money, offered to publish the book and brought it out with great e'clat. He sent review copies, no doubt with cleverly worded blurbs, to various guardians of public morals, and then sat back and waited with results.

They were not long in coming. A terrific cyclone of public indignation burst about the author's head. Her friends turned away from her in disapproval, and many of them expressed the opinion that she should have waited until she was dead, or at least married, before permitting the poems to appear, since they dealt with matters with which no decent girl could possibly be familiar. Charles A. Dana devoted two sizzling columns to a sweeping condemnation of the book which, he announced, threatened to undermine all morality and should be suppressed. The Chicago Herald, after pointing out the poisonous character of the book's contents, ventured the hopes "that Miss Ella Wheeler will relapse into Poems of Decency now that the New York Sun has voiced the opinion of respectability that her Poems of Passion are like the songs of half-tipsy wantons." Nowhere was a voice raised in her defense.

The most embarassing feature of the situation was that she had just become engaged to be married to a man who, as it turned out, was to be her lifelong lover and husband; but she dared not announce the engagement for fear of the storm of Rabelaisian laughter which would sweep the press--what, the author of Poems of Passion posing as a shy maiden approaching her first experience of love? And the man--what sort of fool was he?

"Were I to live my life over again," says Mrs. Wilcox in her autobiography, "with the wisdom of years and knowledge of the world to start with, I surely would not publish Poems of Passion." However, on the other side of the ledger it should be recorded that financially the book was a great success and the proceeds enabled her to put a new roof on the house, to buy her father a new suit of clothes, and to help the family generally.

It seems strange now, looking through the book, to remember what forbidden fruit it was thirty years ago, how it was excluded from the shelves of public libraries, and read surreptitiously by young Lydia Languishes, who thrust it hastily under a cushion when any one entered; how daring it was considered to mention it at all, and what a zest it gave to any entertainment if somebody recited something from it. The sensation was precisely the same as it is to-day when the cocktails are passed around. Cocktails created no sensation then; but Bayard Taylor's "Bedouin Love Song" and Shelley's "Lines to an Indian Air" and anything from Poems of Passion were considered so daring that it was very difficult for Lydia to decide whether she should blush without smiling, or smile without blushing, or blush and smile simultaneously, or just sit with downcast eyes and seem not to understand. How times do change!

The poem which called forth the loudest reprobation was entitled "The Farewell of Clarimonde," and was suggested by Gautier's famous story, which Miss Wheeler had somewhere happened upon and devoured with avidity. Here are four stanzas--the worst ones:

Adieu, Romauld! But thou canst not forget me,
Although no more I haunt thy dreams at night,
Thy hungering heart for ever must regret me,
And starve for those lost moments of delight.

Naught shall avail thy priestly rites and duties--
Nor fears of Hell, nor hopes of Heaven beyond:
Before the Cross shall rise my fair form's beauties--
The lips, the limbs, the eyes of Clarimonde.

I knew all arts of love: he who possessed me
Possessed all women, and could never tire;
A new life dawned for him who once caressed me:
Satiety itself I set on fire.

Inconstancy I chained: men died to win me;
Kings cast by crowns for one hour on my breast,
And all the passionate tide of love within me
I gave to thee, Romauld. Wert thou not blest?

No one to-day would consider this especially shocking; but it shows that, whatever the deficiencies educational and otherwise of this rustic Wisconsin girl, lack of imagination of a certain sort was not one of them.

Not all the poems in the book were concerned with the tender passion. That special source of inspiration failed at page ninety-five, and the concluding sixty pages are devoted to "Miscellaneous Poems." They are for the most part quite frankly juvenile--indeed, Mrs. Wilcox's verse never outgrew a certain immaturity--moralizing upon "Courage," "Progress," "Regret," "Creation," and other well-worn topics of similar character; and it is with one of these, entitled "Solitude," that the present article is concerned.

Mrs. Wilcox has herself told in detail the circumstances of its composition. On the forenoon of a February day in 1883 she boarded the train for Madison, having been honored with an invitation to attend the governor's inaugural ball that evening, and being in sonsequence in a flutter of excitement. She had in her bag a pretty white dress, made especially for the occasion, and she was very happy; but as she took her seat in the coach, she saw a young woman clad in black and shaking with sobs, sitting across the aisle. It was, Mrs. Wilcox characteristically puts it, "the bride of a year, the widow of a week, a lovely girl I had last seen radiant with happiness."

The young poetess sat down beside the mourning girl, her own gaiety all forgotten, and did what she could to console her. She left the train at Madison feeling very blue, and certain that all the pleasure had been taken out of her visit. But she soon forgot the incident in the excitement of getting ready for the ball, she had underestimated the resilience of her own young spirits, and it was not until she was standing in her room before her mirror putting the last touches to the white toilet of which she was so proud, that a vision of that young widow clad all in black flashed before her. With something like remorse, she compared her own radiant figure with that other one bowed under its sorrow, and the first four lines of the poem which was to be called "Solitude" sprang into her mind:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
  Weep, and you weep alone,
For sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
  But has trouble enough of its own.
She knew at once that they were the nucleus of a longer poem, tucked them away in a pigeon-hole of her brain and went on to the ball, where she thoroughly enjoyed herself. But the next morning the quatrain recurred to her at the breakfast-table, and she recited it to her host and hostess, telling them at the same time the story of the young widow. Both of her hearers were enthusiastic, and the host remarked that if she could keep the reminder of the poem up to the epigrammatic standard of these first four lines she would produce something really worth while.

Two nights later, on coming home from a theater-party, she told her friends that she was going to sit up and finish the poem, and did so in a very short time after getting to her room. When, next morning, she took the poem down to breakfast with her and read it aloud, she warned her hearers that she felt she had not kept up to the standard of the first lines, but, she adds, "I can still see the look on the very handsome face of the Judge as he listened with increasing interest, and I can still hear his deep voice lifted in quick spontaneous praise, in which his fair young wife joined."

She sent the poem to the New York Sun and received five dollars for it. The Sun published it February 21, 1883, and it was then added to the "Miscellaneous Poems" needed to fill out Poems of Passion.

Almost at the same time with Poems of Passion, a man by the name of John A. Joyce had published a volume of reminiscences entitled A Checkered Life, written, so Mrs. Wilcox afterwards asserted, while Joyce was serving a term in prison for complicity in certain whiskey frauds. The book purported to tell the story of Joyce's career from youth to maturity, and included the following remarkable memorandum:

Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum,
Lexington, Kentucky.

   The records of this asylum show No. 2,423, John A. Joyce, 18 years of age; occupation, farmer; habit, temperate; original disposition and intellect good; cause, heredity; form of mania, perpetual motion.
Admitted June 20, 1860; discharged September 1860.
W.A.Bullock, M.D.
Medical Superintendent

This memorandum was supposed to prove that Joyce had entirely recovered from the mental trouble which had clouded his youth.

At the back of the book were twenty-three extremely mediocre poems, supposedly all that he had ever written.

In 1885 another edition of the book was published with some additions and revisions, and one of the additions was the poem, "Laugh and the World Laughs with You." Ten years later Joyce published another book entitled Jewels of Memory, also including a number of his poems, "Laugh and the World Laughs with You" among them, and telling the following story of how this particular poem was written.

In January, 1863, when he was twenty-one years old and adjutant of the Twenty-fourth Kentucky regiment, at that time camped at the "Oaklands," near Louisville, Ky., he secured a forty-eight hours' pass and went in to Louisville to call on George D. Prentice, the editor of the Louisville Journal, whose poem, "The Closing Year," Joyce says he considered the finest in American literature. Joyce had had some correspondence with Prentice, who had published a few of his poems, so he proceeded to the Journal office, introduced himself and indulged in some cheap wit which he faithfully records.

"Do you drink?" Prentice asked.

"Never," Joyce replied, like a flash, "except when alone or in company."

Uplifted by this brilliant exchange, the two proceeded to the Galt House and were ushered into a wine-room back of the bar where Prentice was very much at home, and where Major Silas Miller, the proprietor of the house, and two or three friends joined them. Two bottles of Piper Heidseick were ordered by Prentice and presently two more by Joyce, who was unusually rich with four month's back pay in his pocket, and the talk was so clever that Joyce says he imagined himself "at the club with Johnson, Garrick, Beauclerc and Goldsmith."

"Prentice then began his badinage," he continues, "and spurred me about presuming to think I was a poet, and finally defied me to write something off-hand and prove to his friends that I was not a pretender.

"I said, 'All right; what shall I write about?'

"'Oh,' said Prentice, 'write about anything--write about us, wine, feasting, fun, or philosophy.'

"I asked for paper, and it was furnished. I then turned around to a side table, pulled my memories together, thought of Horace, the Falernian wine poet, and one of his odes, where he speaks of people joining you when you laugh, but declining to cling to you when you weep. Then, too, the suggestions of Prentice and the surrounding scene anchored in my mind and inspired my lines.

"I immediately pulled a pencil from my pocket and wrote the following verses inside of fifteen minutes, while my companions were dumping down wine with hilarious vociferation:

(He here quotes Mrs. Wilcox's poem, word for word, the only change being that he has transposed the quatrains of the second and third stanzas.)

"I threw these lines to Prentice. He read them to the revelers and then exclaimed: 'Sir,' speaking to Miller, 'didn't I tell you that fellow was a fool? Now I know he's crazy.'

"Well, the world has had the benefit of my brain baby for thirty years," Joyce concludes, "although 'Exchange,' 'Anonymous,' and other literary robbers have claimed it. What care I? Mankind can make the most of it. More than a dozen other of my verses have gone the rounds of the press under the colors of some plagiarist.

"The glorious Prentice has slept beneath the sod for nearly a quarter of a century, but the grand thoughts he uttered in life will spread over the years like perfume from an unseen censer and thrill the heart of mankind when the memory of his social and literary critics are washed into the waters of oblivion."

It is unfortunate that Prentice died before Joyce made this story public. There might then have been some confirmation of it. As it is, there is none; nor does memory recall any ode of Horace, "the Falernian wine poet," to whom Joyce refers in such off-hand fashion, dealing with the subject of Mrs. Wilcox's poem.There can be no doubt, indeed, that Joyce's story was manufactured out of whole cloth. If he wrote the verses in 1863 they would certainly have appeared somewhere before they were published over Ella Wheeler's name twenty years later, and he would undoubtedly have included them among the poems printed in the first edition of his book.

In 1901 he published another book which purported to be a biography of Edgar Allan Poe, but which is really a strange farrago of nonsense, and he took occasion to include "Solitude" under the title "Love and Laughter." It is dedicated to George D. Prentice, and is accompanied by the comment:

My own poem, "Love and Laughter," written for George D. Prentice, Journalist and Poet, in Louisville, Kentucky, January, 1863, might well be inserted here for the information and education of the rushing world.

The reader can do no better than memorize it and act upon its precepts. The idea of the poem can be found in Homer, Horace, Shakespeare, and the Bible, but not in such rhythmic, epigrammatic and synthetical form. It is a philosophic sermon and will be repeated on the lips of mankind as long as Truth is triumphant!

This is a fair example of the style of the book, the character of whose contents indicates that the wheels of perpetual motion were still going around in Joyce's head. The portrait which serves as a frontispiece to Jewels of Memory confirms this impression. The face is unquestionably that of a man of unstable mentality. It is not without a certain cheap attractiveness, but it is stamped with weakness and dissipation, and the angle at which the broad-brimmed hat is worn betrays the inordinate vanity of the man who wears it.

Mrs. Wilcox, of course, indignantly denied Joyce's story from the first, but he continued to repeat it on every possible occasion, and her husband wished to start a suit for damages, but his friends very wisely dissuaded him from doing so.

"But," writes Mrs. Wilcox, "Mr. Joyce proved himself seriously annoying up to the day of his death. He never allowed more than two years to pass without finding some obscure paper in which he could again set forth his claims to my poem. I repeatedly made an offer of $5000 to be given to charity when any one could produce a copy of 'Solitude' published prior to February 1883. I finally offered to present to any charitable institution he might select, in his name, that amount of money, when Mr. Joyce produced his proof. Of course it was never forthcoming; and yet he claimed the poem had been in circulation for twenty years before I wrote it.

"I believe my experience one which nearly every author has known at some time in his or her career," concludes Mrs. Wilcox. "Though misery may like company, the fact does not prevent one's own suffering, when made the victim of a man of this type, who belongs to the poison insect order of humanity. He is only an insect, and yet his persistent buzz and sting can produce great discomfort."

A few years later, Mrs. Wilcox had a somewhat similar experience with another poem. In December, 1886, she was shopping in New York and was shown a very beautiful opal, the first she had ever seen, by a Mr. Marcus, a dealer in precious stones, who remarked that he wished she would write a poem about it to be used in a book on gems which he was preparing. He added that the opal had always seemed to him the child of the sunbeam and the moonbeam, but though he had mentioned this idea to several New York poets, none of them had been able to make anything of it. Mrs. Wilcox said she was sure that she could, and the next morning, in about half an hour's time, wrote the following:


The Sunbeam loved the Moonbeam,
   And followed her low and high,
But the Moonbeam fled and hid her head,
   She was so shy -- so shy.

The Sunbeam wooed with passion;
   Ah, he was a lover bold!
And his heart was afire with mad desire
   For the Moonbeam pale and cold.

She fled like a dream before him,
   Her hair was a shining sheen,
And oh, that Fate would annihilate
   The space that lay between!

Just as the day lay panting
   In the arms of the twilight dim,
The Sunbeam caught the one he sought
   And drew her close to him.

But out of his warm arms, startled
   And stirred by Love's first shock,
She sprang afraid, like a trembling maid,
   And hid in the niche of a rock.

And the Sunbeam followed and found her,
   And led her to Love's own feast;
And they were wed on that rocky bed,
    And the dying Day was their priest.

And lo! the beautiful Opal --
   That rare and wondrous gem --
Where the moon and sun blend into one,
   Is the child that was born to them.

She sent these verses to Mr. Marcus, saying she wished to publish them in the Century Magazine, after which he could use them, if he wished, in his book on gems. Mr. Marcus was so impressed with them that he sent her a check for twenty-five dollars, and asked to be permitted to publish them first. Mrs. Wilcox agreed, but much to her chagrin, when the book appeared, the verses had no name attached. A few months later, she included them in her Poems of Pleasure, and was astonished to have her authorship sharply challenged by people who claimed to have seen them published elsewhere over other names. She had no difficulty, of course, in proving her right to them, but occasionally for many years she would see them attributed to some one else.

"The Birth of the Opal" became one of the most popular poems Mrs. Wilcox ever wrote, and it is one of the best; but it served to give a fresh fillip to the reputation for daring which Poems of Passion had started. Many of her friends thought it too frank, and one woman, the wife of a successful author, went so far as to cut her acquaintance on the ground that in "The Birth of the Opal" she had laid bare all the secrets of married life!