In 1883, as poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox was traveling by train to attend a festivity in Madison, Wis., she noticed a young woman seated across the aisle from her, dressed in black, crying. Wheeler crossed the aisle, sat next to her, took her hand and heard her hurt for the remainder of the trip.
After they arrived at the station and went separate ways, as the poet was looking in the mirror and applying her makeup, she could not help but contrast her carefully-made-up face with the face of the widow laden with sorrow. She immediately composed the opening four lines of what would become her most loved poem:
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the 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.
Reach across the aisle or the miles or the years. Hear and share and help to bear a fellow-traveler’s pain.