Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.
A Literary Life
Born on November 5, 1850, in Rock County, Wisconsin, to Marcus and Sarah Wheeler, Ella Wheeler was the youngest of four children. The family relocated to Dane County, when Ella was two years old. The family remained in the town of Westport, and Ella lived there until she married in 1884.
After her marriage to Robert Wilcox, the couple moved to Connecticut. Ella's maternal great-grandfather had served in the Revolutionary War. Her mother wrote poetry, and Ella started writing poetry also.
Ella's whole family often read and studied Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Robert Burns, as well as the contemporary poets. The school that she attended is now named for her, The Ella Wheeler Wilcox School. She attended the University of Wisconsin for a short time but felt that university study was a waste of time.
The poet wanted to devote herself to writing, and she wanted to make money to help her family. At age fourteen, she wrote prose pieces that were accepted by the New York Mercury.
As a professional writer, Ella wrote pieces for syndicated columns, and she became noted as a newspaper poet. The reporters for the New York American offered her a position as official poet at the royal funeral of Queen Victoria. Ella's poems were well loved in Britain and studied in British schools. Her occasional poem for the funeral is titled "The Queen's Last Ride."
"Solitude" and Other Poems
Ella Wheeler Wilcox's most famous poem is "Solitude," especially noted for the following oft-quoted lines: "Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone."
The poem plays out in three riming eight-line stanzas. The poem's theme is a dramatization of the tension between a positive and a negative attitude: "For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth, / But has trouble enough of its own." The poem essentially avers that while a negative attitude repulses others, the positive attracts them.
Ella was inspired to write this piece after an experience with a young widow she encountered on a train ride to Madison, Wisconsin. Ella was traveling for the purpose of participating in the governor’s inauguration.
Upon taking her seat, the poet noticed a young lady dressed in mourner’s black situated across from her. The young woman was weeping. Ella moved to sit next to her, and during the trip attempted to comfort the young widow.
After arriving in Madison, Ella realized that she had become quite depressed and sad, and then viewing own face in the hotel room mirror, she remembered the sorrow of the young woman, whom she had tried comfort.
The juxtaposition of seeing her own rather cheerful face and remembering the sorrow of the young widow urged her to muse on the notion that happiness brings community of further happiness, while sorrow mourns alone.
The opening lines then sprang into the poet’s mind: "Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone." She completed the poem, later sending it to the New York Sun, which published it on February 25, 1883. They compensated the poet with $5.00, and it also then appeared in her collection, Poems of Passion, later that year in May.
In " A Lovers' Quarrel," the speaker dramatizes her lover as the Sea, with whom she quarrels and then runs away to a Town. Town satisfies her for a while, but then she starts thinking about her love for the Sea, and decides that Sea is her true love and thus returns to him.
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In " Go Plant a Tree," the speaker marvels at the glory of a tree; planting the tree makes one feel wonderful, and then watching it grow is even more special. The speaker claims, "Nature has many marvels; but a tree / Seems more than marvelous. It is divine." Rivers are "garrulous" but trees simply hold "pleasant converse with the winds and birds."
And then the speaker compares the tree to rocks and decides, "Rocks are majestic; but, unlike a tree, / They stand aloof, and silent." Even the ocean does not compare favorably with a tree: "Of ocean billows breaking on the shore / There sounds the voice of turmoil. But a tree / Speaks ever of companionship and rest."
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
Reputation as a Poet
Although Ella Wheeler Wilcox was well known and even made a living by her writing, she has fallen out of favor with literary scholars. The New Critics judged her poetic contributions harshly. They disdained her didacticism and her sentimentality.
She is often categorized as a popular rather than literary writer. However, Wilcox's poems are appreciated and even loved by readers who accidentally stumble upon them. Her poems speak with a truth and sincerity that gladdens the heart and mind.
The postmodern frame of mind that found nothing to praise and nothing to live for is responsible for throwing shade on poets who felt that their responsibility was to share the beauty of the world as well as the ugliness.
As a matter of fact, the comparison of the negative and the positive can serve to emphasize that the positive is more attractive, better for the mind and heart and ultimately better for one's physical and mental health.
But the postmodern mindset was/is having none of that; that mindset remains hellbent on raising the flag of nihilism over the literary landscape—like an angry adolescent it must dress itself in black and mock every positive aspect of life that makes life worth living.
The poetry of Ella Wheeler Wilcox could serve as a corrective to that postmodern blight on society. Restoring the reputation of Wilcox and other poets such as James Whitcomb Riley and John Greenleaf Whittier could go a long way to picking up the trash that has been flung far and wide across the literary landscape by the doomsayers.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox died on October 30, 1919, of cancer at her home in Short Beach, Connecticut.
Poem: "Secret Thoughts" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (Law of Karma explained):
- Editors. "Ella Wheeler Wilcox." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed March 18, 2022.
- Curators. Ella Wheeler Wilcox Biography." PoemHunter. Accessed March 18, 2022.
- Editors. "Ella Wheeler Wilcox." Poetry Foundation. Accessed March 14, 2022.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes