Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s Poem, ‘The Year’

America poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

As we close in on the end of 2020, this New Year-themed poem from American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “The Year,” feels appropriate, and sort of captures the vibe the best: come what may; whatever, it is what it is.

Born on a farm in Wisconsin in 1850, Wilcox was a “popular writer characterized mainly by her upbeat and optimistic poetry, though she was also an activist,” according to the Academy of American Poets. She’s perhaps most known for the two lines from her poem, “Solitude,” which go, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone.” I’m not sure if even in passing, I’ve heard Wilcox’s name before, but I’ve certainly encountered those two marvelous, melancholy lines at some point in my life.

From what I’m gathering of her poetry from Wikipedia, both because it was popular and because it utilized simple, rhyming language, it was seen as “bad” within literary circles and critics, even appearing in examples of bad poetry anthologies. That’s peculiar. I don’t see why either of those aspects would be an inherent mark against poetry. My mantra has always been that “simple is better” and as a general rule of thumb, that tends to hold. And sure, rhyming can get a bit hokey, but I didn’t get that sense with this poem.

In any event, the poem was published in Poetical Works of Ella Wheeler Wilcox in 1917, which incidentally, was two years prior to her death. The poem is in the public domain, so I’ll share it in full:

What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That’s not been said a thousand times?

The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.

We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.

We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.

We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our brides, we sheet our dead.

We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that’s the burden of the year.

I love that even in 1917, or probably earlier when she actually wrote the poem, poets were already burdened by, “What else is there to say about this, really?” Again, that sort of whimsical, flippant vibe I’m getting from this poem is an aesthetic I’m all about and is what made me gravitate toward the poem when I read snippets while scrolling Twitter, as I do.

Life takes a lot out of us, whatever the new year may bring, as evoked by how we “rise up laughing with the light” and lie down “weeping with the night.” But through it all, we still persist, and I appreciate that element here, too, which I suppose you could characterize as optimistic! That comes through in the desire to hug the world, even knowing it stings, and when it does, we’re mad, but we still “sigh for wings.” That’s a beautiful turn-of-phrase, and true.

There’s a great circle-of-life quality to this poem, which is a rather revealing reflection of what the new year is like. Yeah, we dream, and we dream we know, as she says, but in the end, the new year is like the old year, some of it’s going to be filled with mirth and some of it with a dearth thereof, and we roll with the stings and the wings, the wreaths and the sheets. Ah, I love the rhyming in this poem! It works, it really does.

All of it, the good, the bad, the in-between, is the “burden of the year.” That’s the way to look at it, and it’s not as dreary as it seems. It’s just life. That’s what to expect of a new year. Get your expectations in check, she’s saying. I appreciate Wilcox’s sentiment.

What do you make of this, oddly in a way, cheerful appraisal of a new year?

One thought

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