Thursday, November 5, 2009

Poetry Cupboard ~ Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Love lights more fires
Than hate extinguishes.

On this date in 1850, American author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox was born on a farm in my home state.

I’m interested in Wheeler Wilcox for a couple of reasons, the first one being the local connection. Another reason is that she was one of three American Nineteenth Century poets who were the subject of a doctoral dissertation written by my daughter’s aunt several years ago.

Wheeler Wilcox was considered something of a sentimentalist, and a popular poet, rather than a literary one, who made substantial amounts of money from her poetry. I happen to own an ornately embossed volume of Wheeler Wilcox’s poetry, published in 1901, that I found years ago at a used book store. These lines from the poem “Maurine,” which is also the name of the book, certainly display a sentimental turn of mind:

The moon went down, slow sailing from my sight,
And left the stars to watch away the night.
O stars, sweet stars, so changeless and serene!
What depths of woe your pitying eyes have seen!
The proud sun sets, and leaves us with our sorrow,
To grope alone in darkness till the morrow.
The languid moon, e’en if she deigns to rise,
Soon seeks her couch, grown weary of our sighs;
But from the early gloaming till the day
Sends golden-liveried heralds forth to say
He comes in might; the patient stars shine on,
Steadfast and faithful, from twilight to dawn.

Wheeler Wilcox came from an impoverished background. Her mother sought solace in literature, with the result that Wheeler Wilcox began writing both prose and poetry at an early age. She wrote a multi-chapter novel at the age of eleven and earned her first commission for writing when she was fourteen. Following high school, she spent one miserable year in college and then began writing both prose and poetry for a living.

One source that I looked at described Wheeler Wilcox’s writing as follows:

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 ….

Isn’t that the truth?

When Wheeler Wilcox was 28, she married Robert Wilcox; together they explored various schools of thinking, including “Theosophy,” “New Thought,” and “Spiritualism.” The couple had a very interesting pact that whoever died first would come back and communicate with the other. When Robert Wilcox died in 1916 and did not return as Ella expected him to do, she traveled to California, seeking counsel from the leader of the Rosicrucian Philosophy, Max Heindel. These words from her description of this meeting reminds me eerily of my own thoughts whenever I hear a story about how Jesus has appeared to someone on a piece of toast, or the Virgin Mary has appeared as a stain on a wall:

I replied that it seemed strange to me that an omnipotent God could not send a flash of his light into a suffering world to bring its conviction when most needed.

Heindel’s response essentially was that Robert Wilcox would only reappear when Ella’s tumultous grief had quieted. Ella took this advice to heart, even composing a mantra in which she repeated over and over:

I am ready, God: I am ready, Christ: I am ready, Robert.

Despite these careful preparations, however, I have never heard that Robert Wilcox ever reappeared to comfort his widow.

Wilcox was very popular within the “New Thought” movement, and as mentioned above, her writings demonstrate a blending of various schools of thought, including a belief in reincarnation. She is perhaps best known for the lines that begin her poem “Solitude,” which was composed after a chance encounter with a grieving widow while traveling to the Governor’s inaugural ball in 1883:

Laugh and the world laughs with you,
Weep, and you weep alone;
The good old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox died of cancer in 1919. Although Wheeler Wilcox is now considered an obscure minor poet, her words quoted at the top of this post are preserved for posterity as an inscription on a paving slab in Jack Kerouac Alley, next to the City Lights Bookstore, in San Francisco.


  1. Welcome to blogspot Moonstone! Glad to have you here!

    And I agree with Wilcox's quote! It's a great line.

  2. Hello, Barry ~ Thank you for coming by and thanks for the welcome. It's great to be here ... I like this format. Wheeler Wilcox certainly understood. I'll be by to see you in a bit. ~ Moon

  3. Wouldja believe--our class poem when I was a HS senior was a Wheeler Wilcox? I think it was called "Whatever Is, Is Best". Never knew much about her, though.