Ella Wheeler Wilcox was born in 1850 and died shortly after the first world war. She was considered not to be one of America’s greatest poets, but possibly the most read (she was good at self publication through alliance with the news media; some sources, in fact, describe her as a journalist).
I am inclined to disagree with the ‘not one of America’s greatest’ tag, which comes from some commentators, which description seems to be a bit of a ‘put-down’. She was a prolific writer and revolutionary in her own way. Whilst her poetry may have seemed rather traditional in its bouncy-bouncy style of metre and rhyme, given that it was written in a different age – over one hundred years ago – she was able to write poems in a very ordinary language; a language that was, nay is, at the same time, able both to communicate with and appeal to ordinary people – people who have not necessarily benefitted from a particularly literary education – and I love her for it. An example of this is demonstrated by the first lines of a poem, for which she is perhaps best known, “Solitude”, which begins: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone”, which have passed into common usage, simply because she makes herself so easily understood. This poem was apparently inspired by her experience on a train journey, for the duration of which she found herself comforting an inconsolable, grieving widow.
I’m sure this has been written and reiterated many times in the past, including one hundred and fifty years ago, but it most likely bears repetition, simply because some of those who become absorbed in their art, are capable of developing not only short memories but also short sightedness! It strikes me that parts of the poetry world, as do sections of the art world, appear to be rather too inclined to look inwards on itself; become over absorbed with its own sophistication; and get lost in its own intellectual complexity. It thereby, in my view, loses the interest of too many people. There seems to be a ‘post modern’ tendency to over elaborate and sophisticate the language used in poetry and some lyrics, perhaps because modern aspiring poets feel a need to differentiate themselves from the ordinary? Perhaps because, when they set out as poets, they are somehow made to feel that they have to write in an abstruse way? For it to be validated that any of these motives should determine what is acceptable in poetry, not to say fashionable, would be a misguided notion. By that very attitude to its own art, the poetry world is in danger of alienating itself from a potentially much larger and more appreciative audience.
Yes, there are subjects within the complexities of human experience, which do require a different set of understandings; a more esoteric language to describe them lyrically; a requirement to use the English language to its fullest and most glorious extent and, above all, that challenges us to think at a greater depth. Of course, there exists some powerful poetry written by masters of the art to exemplify this, but please let’s not overdo it; let’s not exclude people, who may not yet have been properly introduced to this art form, from being able not only to enjoy reading poetry, but also to appreciate the fulfilling experience of writing it.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox appealed to a very wide audience, I think for that very reason. But, whatever you think, do read her. You will be surprised to find so much beautiful, passionate lyricism and wisdom. This is poetry that can be read easily, from a woman, who, on the face of it, did not have a ‘tortured soul’; was not poor and did not, it seems, have to strive to survive. She appears to have lived a long, loving and happy (albeit childless) life, married as she was for thirty years to one man. I commend her to you without reservation.
Above all, she is a bastion of optimism and, as a final note, I offer you here her poem “I Told You”, which encapsulates that optimism and amply illustrates her style.
“I Told You”
By Ella Wheeler-Wilcox
I told you the winter would go, love,
I told you the winter would go,
That he’d flee in shame when the south wind came,
And you smiled when I told you so.
You said the blustering fellow
Would never yield to a breeze,
That his cold, icy breath had frozen to death
The flowers, the birds, and trees.
And I told you the snow would melt, love,
In the passionate glance o’ the sun;
And the leaves o’ the trees, and the flowers and bees,
Would come back again, one by one.
That the great, gray clouds would vanish,
And the sky turn tender and blue;
And the sweet birds would sing, and talk of the spring
And, love, it has all come true.
I told you that sorrow would fade, love,
And you would forget half your pain;
That the sweet bird of song would waken ere long,
And sing in your bosom again;
That hope would creep out of the shadows,
And back to its nest in your heart,
And gladness would come, and find its old home,
And that sorrow at length would depart.
I told you that grief seldom killed, love,
Though the heart might seem dead for awhile.
But the world is so bright, and full of warm light
That ‘twould waken at length, in its smile.
Ah, love! was I not a true prophet?
There’s a sweet happy smile on your face;
Your sadness has flown – the snow-drift is gone,
And the buttercups bloom in its place.
Just lovely, and I have to add two more very economical poems she wrote, which will speak for themselves:
“The Winds of Fate”
One ship drives east and another drives west
With the selfsame winds that blow.
‘Tis the set of the sails,
And Not the gales,
That tell us the way to go.
Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate;
As we voyage along through life,
‘Tis the set of a soul
That decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.
She also cared about alleviating animal suffering, as can be seen from her poem, “Voice of the Voiceless”. It begins as follows:
I am the voice of the voiceless;
Through me the dumb shall speak,
Till the deaf world’s ear be made to hear
The wrongs of the wordless weak.
From street, from cage, and from kennel,
From stable and zoo, the wail
Of my tortured kin proclaims the sin
Of the mighty against the frail.
I appreciate this very thoughtful view of Wilcox and her poetry. She had a voice, one that many appreciate.
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John, yes, I agree with your final sentence. Some people create the torture, others really are tortured. If art can emerge from the pain, then it’s wonderful, but it’s not a prerequisite.
Thanks for introducing me to Ella Wheeler Wilcox—she writes beautifully for someone who’s not tortured. 😉
Two points I’ll touch on from your post:
” It strikes me that parts of the poetry world, as do sections of the art world, appear to be rather too inclined to look inwards on itself; become over absorbed with its own sophistication; and get lost in its own intellectual complexity. It thereby, in my view, loses the interest of too many people.”
I’ve always believed that if you write, whether it be poetry, short stories, novels…it needs to be read and hopefully enjoyed. The words must resonate with an audience unless the author chooses it to be solely for his/her own entertainment. I could not agree more that poets do have a certain air of sophistication about them. I am in awe of poets because the ones I read touch something basic in me with very few words. What I feel after reading a good poem stimulates me in my own writing. I am a precise, meticulous writer, and I find poetry difficult to write because it isn’t a precise art. I am also not intimidated by reading it, but I can certainly understand, and know people who are. When an art form becomes enshrouded in too much mystery, for reasons such as you’ve described, it alienates the very people it hopes to reach.
“This is poetry that can be read easily, from a woman, who, on the face of it, did not have a ‘tortured soul’; was not poor and did not, it seems, have to strive to survive.”
I don’t buy into the notion that artists need to be tortured, depressed, and on the verge of killing themselves in order to create. Can a content mind produce art as well as one from a manic depressed mind? Yes, of course it can, but the end product will likely be very different.
Historically, artists have no one to blame but themselves for this “tortured soul” reputation.
Norman Mailer said at the end of his life “Every one of my books has killed me a little more.” Really? As a writer, there is certainly a lot of myself that I put into my work, but am I dying a bit each time to write my story? I sure hope not. If I am, I may not be around for much longer.
Thanks once again for your lengthy and considered comment, Eden. I always appreciate and value your input.
I confess I didn’t think of myself as sophisticated! This would be one of my last attributes; if I do, then maybe I need to make more of a conscious effort to avoid it! So much of my earlier poetry is what I call personal, to the point that it is not so much for public viewing as for that of its subject, but reading the poetry of others and learning has begun to alter my perspective. I believe that poets are, in a very real sense, one of the barometers of humanity, along with songwriters, but to be a good poet (or songwriter) they have, as you say, to have “an ability to touch something basic”, an ability to dig beneath the veneer of our everyday perceptions of life and humanity. But perversely, because every poet, like every human being that walks the earth, is wired in some way differently from the next, this does result in a very rich tapestry of expression. All poetry, for me, needs to be a rhythm of words, but words are the crucial bit; words that are carefully chosen individually and in harmony with other words to convey meaning on a different level. Truly great poets are, I think, a rare commodity, but I personally know some very good mostly undiscovered grass roots poets out there who have the potential to make a significant contribution.
As for tortured souls, I agree that too much sensationalisation of same is made these days, not for the most part by the artists themselves, as by their publicists, critics and the media they represent, purely for commercial gain. My own perspective on this was much altered when someone, to whom I was very close, within the past ten years suffered a severe clinical depression. For me, watching someone in this condition is like watching them die, whilst they are still alive; it is not easy to describe it in any other way and, being very close to them, I felt almost every horrendous heartbeat of their experience. He is now happily recovered, albeit with some extraordinarily good care. He is nevertheless artistic in his nature, and all my insight tells me about this is that, if, out of what was effectively, nay literally, a near death experience, he finds expression, in whatever way, I promise myself that I will try never again to be critical of any “tortured soulfulness” that may emerge.
Thanks again Eden.