Ella Wheeler Wilcox by David Arthur Walters

The poetess Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) is seldom heard of today. Her fall from grace coincided with the rise of the so-called New Criticism, a special domain of the stronger sex. Ella had committed unpardonable mortal sins in the judgment of the largely failed and frustrated poets of that empyrean realm: she was sentimental, optimistic, and wildly successful - she made a small fortune writing.

Anyone who is truly interested in succeeding in any walk of life will find Ella's life illuminating, especially women who might find themselves living in a man's world. That world is, as everybody knows, fundamentally a reasonable, masculine world, as opposed to the feminine, sentimental one - although we do find a few foolishly romantic men crying over silly poems throughout recorded history.

Fortunately for Ella, she did not live in Marguerite Porete's time - Marguerite was burned at the stake in 1310 for daring to elevate Love over Reason in her banned book about annihilated souls. Still, Ella in her own time was subjected to scathing, contemptuous, "scientific" criticism for identifying Heart with Art.

A stanza from Ella's poem 'Communism' certainly suits the occasion here:

When the court of the mind is ruled by Reason,
I know it is wiser for us to part
But Love is a spy who is plotting treason,
In league with that warm, red rebel, the Heart.
They whisper to me that the King is cruel,
That his reign is wicked, his law a sin,
And every word they utter is fuel
To the flame that smolders within.

Heart and Art have always been and always will be one, yet that does not keep imbeciles from trying to rip them apart. New Criticism, worshiping mechanical literary contraptions, employed pseudo-scientific methods to dismember what cannot be set asunder by any man. Consequently, the critical works of the New Critics are some of the dreariest ever printed for any private club of self-congratulatory gentlemen, the literary conclave that literally pushed aside many Nineteenth-century female writers. To this very day their critical progeny bore us with tedious tracts about how to write poetry. With some of the finest poetry of the greatest minds available in public libraries, only an unwitting rube without a muse would pay so much as a plug nickel for the advice of these dimwitted pedants.

In the interest of being fair, however, we should sum up the statements the critical harpies, parrots, and magpies, led by I.A. Richards, brought to bear on Ella's work. They said Ella's productions were facile, fatuous, easy, immature, lowbrow, bad, stereotyped, conventional, a pure phenomenon of democracy, middle-class, lawless and wanton. Furthermore, they said she was a poetess of passion, a leader of fireside sentiment and facile optimism who had created a ridiculous record of sentimental feminine attitudinizing. Her biographer Jenny Ballou rendered the oft-quoted final analysis: Ella was "a bad major poet."

Those of us with "vulgar" taste prefer to decide for ourselves, thank you very much; and, despite a feeling of incompetence cultivated in us by our self-appointed superiors, we are doing so more frequently now that the gate-keepers are being shoved into an obscure corner of the world by the Internet. Let the hypo-critical sophisticates exchange insipid abstractions there on lusterless websites, all according to their flimsy "objective" standards of moral praise and blame, and without the slightest danger of poisoning the community's well as they micturate into the vast digital ocean. As for us folks, it is with innocence renewed that we now rely on Ella's work rather than dwell on the perversities of her arrogant detractors. She is best recalled by these famous lines from her 'Solitude':

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.

Ella was born in Wisconsin. Her burning desire was to lift herself and her family out of poverty - she chose writing as her means. Her parents were Marcus Hatwell Wheeler - a dance teacher, music teacher and farmer - and Sarah Pratt - a woman who sought solace in literature, from the drabness of her frugal life in a very humble dwelling. Sarah had memorized prodigious amounts of poetry which she liked to recite. Of course it was she who encouraged Ella to write.

Ella produced an eleven-chapter novel when she was nine years old - it was bound in kitchen wallpaper. Her professional career began at fourteen when she submitted prose to the New York Mercury, to pay for an expired subscription. In addition to the Mercury, Leslie's Weekly and Waverly Magazine accepted her prose-sketches. Eager to get her family out of poverty, Ella quit school to devote her time to writing. She was from the very outset hardly interested in a formal education; however, she did attend the University of Wisconsin for one miserable year. Writing was Ella's all, her way out, her path to freedom, and she meant business.

Ella made her dream come true: she succeeded. She wrote syndicated columns and books, in prose and in verse. Her claim to fame was as a newspaper poet. For instance, when Queen Victoria died, Ella was invited to join reporters of the New York American as the publication's official poet at the royal funeral. The Britons already loved Ella's poems, which were taught in schools and quoted throughout the land. And they loved her even more for her 'The Queen's Last Ride', from which we quote the opening lines:

The Queen is taking a drive today
They have hung with purple the carriageway.
They have dressed with purple the royal track
Where the Queen goes forth and never comes back.

Let no man labor as she goes by
On her last appearance to mortal eye
With head uncovered let all men wait
For the Queen to pass, in her regal state.

Ella wrote about love, optimism, marriage, temperance, the labor movement, classless society, history, life crises, and more. Much of her prose consists of moral platitudes, little sketches of about 500 words. She often wrote about letters she had received from readers: she was the Dear Abby and Ann Landers of her day. Those of us who have been criticized for using platitudes can certainly appreciate her platitudinous statement about platitudes in 'Women Who Want to Succeed': that all successful people know the important platitudes:

"We are given to sneering at platitudes in this age, and we sometimes forget that principles are platitudes.

"We despise the commonplace, yet the virtues are commonplace qualities, when we come down to the facts."

In the same, typically brief, moral essay, Ella addressed the question whether one should seek advice in order to succeed:

"In the first place, do not ask advice. Look about you, and observe people whom you admire and wish to emulate, and those whom you do not admire, and whose example you would avoid."

What excellent advice to follow! If only more writers would start studying the best literature in the world rather than the horrid how-to-write articles plaguing the world today.

Most of Ella's moral pieces proceed from some maxim or platitude, hence each article can easily be summed up in a few words.

In 'The Abuse of Children', she argues that puritanical repression of natural desire makes vice more attractive to children. "The devil must laugh his sides sore to see how straight-laced virtue whips her children into his ranks."

As for 'The Management of Husbands', a good marriage requires compromise, respect for differences, and mutual expressions of affection and praise.

Furthermore, 'A Husband's Duty' is to give his wife not only a fine home to live in but also, on regular occasions, his undivided attention.

She says, in 'Society Smiles on the Man', that a the double standard prevails because it is not condemned.

In 'Women's Influence Over Man', she states, matter of factly: "The light words of a woman, lightly spoken, of times weigh heavily on the scales of fate." Furthermore, "More than one prison door has been opened for and shut upon a bank defaulter, or a forger, by a woman's words."

In 'The Woman Who Knows it All', Ella holds that "Nothing is more terrible in human form as the woman who knows it all."

She succinctly avers, regarding 'People We Do Not Like', that, "If we cannot like them, let us not be like them."

Most importantly, in 'Believe in Yourself', Ella advises that it might take many years to succeed, but if you believe in your self and persevere with a good idea, you shall succeed.

Ella was not adverse to receiving money. In 'Literary Confessions of a Western Poetess', she said, "I received my first cheque, and felt fully launched on the great sea of literature." Again, her poetry was not an end in itself but a means to save her family and to raise her social status. It was, to wit, her work. She further confessed, "Thank God for the gift that enabled me such broadening pleasures and advantages in life." As for the critics, she claimed that, if critics had trained her, "I should have been a better poet, but a less useful financier and citizen. I should be remembered longer by critics, but less gratefully by those to whom I owe my existence." She retracted the statement later, when she became more aware of the true character of the critics and their intellectual gallimaufry and charlatanism.

Of course women might want to know where Ella stood on the "Woman's Question" as it stood in her time. As should be plain from the foregoing, she was no radical feminist by our standards. She put her foot down most firmly in her insistence that women have bodies, therefore girls must be taught both the physical and spiritual aspects of life:

"Our grandmothers and mothers never confessed to the possession of bodies and knew nothing about themselves physically."

She expressed her physical feelings in POEMS OF PASSION. Her vague eroticism therein would not cause anyone to blink or blush today, but a Chicago publisher "inadvertently" rejected it as "immoral". Milwaukee citizens, however, gave her $500 and a testimonial. Another Chicago publisher saw the possibilities of scandal and published the book. It was a success: in two years, 60.000 copies were sold. Therefore, when seeking the secret of Ella's success, we must mention Good Luck, inasmuch as the mistake of one publisher worked to another publisher's advantage. It was her big break. She was thereafter called - derisively by the critical harpies - the "poetess of passion." She went on to say such shocking things as, in 'Poems of Sentiment' (1892):

So vast the tide of Love within me surging,
It overflows like some stupendous sea....

And, most prominently, in the same poem:

And couldst thou give me one fond hour of passion,
I'd take that hour and call my life complete.

And here is a brutally orgiastic line - I do not remember from whence:

Here is my body, bruise it if you will,
And break my heart I have that something still.

Heavens to Betsy! But what of Ella's real love in this world? In 1884 she married Robert Marius Wilcox. He died in 1916 of pneumonia. Ellas and Robert were fascinated by Theosophy and Spiritualism - they also studied under Swami Vivekananda, who had become quite famous in America. After her husband's death, Ella tried to contact him in the spirit world by means of a Ouija board. During one sitting, she thought that he, from the Other Side, had instructed her to make a tour of the Allied forces in France. She did so, reading her poems to soldiers and giving advice on such subjects as venereal disease. Unfortunately she had a nervous breakdown; she returned to her home at Short Beach, where she had once reigned as queen of her own salon, and died of cancer shortly thereafter. Her dear friend, the poet Edwin Markham, best known for his Man With a Hoe, read the Spiritualistic service.

As I reluctantly wind up this essay about Ella Wheeler Wilcox, I have a tragic feeling which often recurs in cases of good persons past. Why do we often love people more after they are gone? Why do we wait until their death to sadly rejoice in a greatness that looked all too small to us in the flesh at the time? Is it reason that interferes, a reason enslaved by self-love, a fear of losing one's own self? As for critics, I am one of the critics I mock. And why do I mock my kind? Am I to be a master of mockery who mocks himself in others to teach them well of our mutual faults by my own bad example?

I have Ella's book, POEMS OF PASSION, before me. Inside the front cover there is a note inked from friend to friend in penmanship so excellently drawn that it speaks eloquently of the day and age: "To Maggie From Alice, Jan 1886." I turn to page 153 to read the poem, 'Mockery':

Why do we grudge our sweets so to the living,
Who, God knows, find at best too much of gall,
And then with generous, open hands kneel, giving
Unto the dead our all?

Why do we pierce the warm hearts, sin or sorrow,
With idle jests, or scorn, or cruel sneers,
And when it cannot know, on some tomorrow,
Speak of its woe through tears?

What do the dead care for the tender token--
The love, the praise, the floral offerings?
But palpitating, living hearts are broken
For want of just these things.


Keys to Ella's Success

1) Motivated: Ella wanted to help her parents and to raise her status. She did not want to be a starving artist - she wanted to get ahead.

2) Ambitious: Ella was all for Progress in America.

3) Productive: Ella churned out her poems, worked hard, persevered, flooded the magazines and papers with her work.

4) Chance: the scandal of Ella's "prurient" interest was "discovered" due to a publisher's inadvertent refusal of her book.

5) Genius: Ella had her guardian spirit and she spoke accordingly, from her heart.

6) Optimistic: Ella remained optimistic, believing in herself and her work.

7) Informed: Ella was a world traveler. She had been to exotic places, yet still spoke to the hearts of housewives who had never been anywhere to speak of - she knew their hearts from personal experience.

8) Occultism: Ella spoke to many women who had lost husbands and sons in the war and who longed to reach them.

9) Generosity: she was always willing to give of herself, to offer advice to those in need.

10) Circumstances (related to Chance): poetry was popular in newspapers and magazines of the day.


by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

THE WORLDS AND I, New York: George Doran, 1918


POEMS OF PASSION, Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1885
By other authors:

Jenny Ballou, PERIOD PIECE, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940

C.E. Pulos, THE NEW CRITICS AND THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY, Lincoln: University of Nebraska, Study #19, March 1998

NOTABLE AMERICAN WOMEN, Cambridge: Harvard, 1971

Copyright 2000 by David Arthur Walters

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