Watts, Emily Stipes.
The poetry of American women from 1632 to 1945.
Austin: University of Texas Press, c1977.
p. 140-1, 143-145, 177, 185, 195


The less delicate and less fragile feminine line, the more vigorous verse, was continued by a large number of women in the late nineteenth century, the best of whom, besides Dickinson, were her friend Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919), and Lizette Woodworth Reese (1856-1935). These women wrote a large number of poems specifically for the popular journals, and they profited financially from their verse.

It is possible to see Ella Wheeler Wilcox's conversational line in Three Women (1897) as another kind of prosodic development, but it seems to me to extend back through Osgood to Bleecker (and has few characteristics of the pentametric conversational line developed by Robert Browning). Three Women, a narrative poem of approximately 3,500 lines, is predominantly written in rhyming anapestic tetrameter, with its conversational tone created by shifting caesurae, common diction, intermingled iambs and trochees, and generous use of enjambment. Wilcox can vary her lines, as for example, the speaker shifts from a reflective to an assertive mood, as in this passage, in which Ruth, one of the three women, leaves her home to begin medical training:

                                           Once I thought
Men cared for the women who found home the spot
Next to heaven for happiness; women who knew
No ambition beyond being loyal and true,
And who loved all the tasks of the housewife. I learn
Instead, that from women of that kind men turn,
With a yawn, unto those that are useless; who live
For the poor hollow world and for what it can give,
And who make home the spot where, when other joys cease,
One sleeps late when one wishes.
Well, I'm done with the role of housewife. I see
There is nothing in being domestic. The part
Is unpicturesque, and at war with all art.
The senile old Century leers with dim eyes
At our sex and demands that we shock or surprise
His thin blood into motion....

However, if Wilcox is remembered at all, it is for her short poems. Generally popular in her own day, by the 1930's she had been critically relegated by Alfred Kreymborg to "the leader of fireside sentiment and household editions." More recently, Louise Bogan has praised Wilcox's Poems of Passion (1883) for having "brought into popular love poetry the element of 'sin.'... By 1900 a whole feminine school of rather daring verse on the subject of feminine and masculine emotions had followed Mrs. Wilcox's lead." Wilcox gained a reputation as a "sinful poet" when a Chicago based firm refused to publish Poems of Passion in 1883. After a great deal of publicity, another Chicago publisher quickly issued the book. It was amazingly popular, selling sixty thousand copies in its first two years.

Concerning Wilcox, both Kreymborg and Bogan are accurate in a sense: Wilcox was read in the "household," and she did project a sense of "sin," but such, as we have seen, was nothing new for the women poets of the nineteenth century. Her shorter poems are simply more blunt than those of preceding women writers of amatory verse ("blunt," in the sense that Piatt's poems to her children were "blunt"): in theme and attitude, she represents a bridge between Osgood and Millay. Wilcox was less capable artistically and more willing to rely on verbal cliche's than Jackson and Guiney, for example, but her poetry continues the same vigorous traditions as that of Jackson and other earlier poets. She certainly never wrote a "fragile" or "delicate" poem, but rather in her best poems represents a development from the rough and highly independent verse of frontier women in the middle of the century. She was from a poor family in Wisconsin and published her books with Chicago firms. More sardonic and sensual than the hopeful Jackson, Wilcox wrote some agressive and interesting poems.

Wilcox wrote two distinct kinds of "adult" poems: those which might appeal today to the television soap-opera set and those which are poetically and intellectually interesting in themselves. She mixed the two together in her volumes of poetry, along with poems apparently meant for children. Thus she tuned her verse directly to the housewife and mixed poems asserting a tough and agressive individualism (and feminism) with poems of sentimentalism and traditional values. Nevertheless, her firm belief in woman and in her talent springs from the tendencies of earlier American women poets and marks a step to women's poetry today. In her own way, she foreshadows the verse of Edna St. Vincent Millay and, later, Sylvia Plath.

For example, in Poems of Passion, several poems, such as "Individuality," demand that a woman must retain a sense of self, of "individuality," a "subtle part" of her being, even in the happy love situation. In "An Answer," the poet rejects marriage:

If all the year was summer-time,
And all the aim of life
Was just to lilt on like a rhyme,
Then I would be your wife.

Sexual passion (of both women and men) is symbolized throughout her poems as a tiger, not as in the naturalistic novels as a "beast within," but as a "splendid creature," which "Once having tasted human flesh, ah! then,/Woe, woe unto the whole rash world of men" ("The Tiger"). Nine years later, in "Three and One," published in Poems of Pleasure (1892), Wilcox admits that, for her, sex is "all the tiger in my blood." On the other hand, in "At Eleusis" (Poems of Passion), motherhood is praised and welcomed, but Persephone is passive, a "rescued maid," led "by the hand." In a Gray Mood" (Poems of Pleasure), the world is a tragic place: "This world is a vaporous jest at best,/Tossed off by the gods in laughter." In this poem, such cosmic cruelty is moderated only by the hope of a better world in the hereafter. At times, in these short poems, Wilcox toys with the traditional concept of feminine duality ("Angel or Demon" Poems of Pleasure), and in her first long (3,200 lines) poem, Maurine (Marurine, and Other Poems, 1888), Wilcox introduced two types of women: Helen, a passive, weak woman, who bears a daughter and soon dies; and Maurine, an agressive, intelligent artist, who eventually marries an American poet-intellectual after a trip to Europe, where her paintings receive respectable notices and a European nobleman proposes marriage to her. Helen and Maurine reappear, in far more complex form, as Mable and Ruth, two of the women in Three Women.

[Kreymborg. A history of American Poetry, pp. 254-255. Louise Bogan Achievement in American Poetry 1900-1950, p. 24.]

3 American poets have never become wealthy only from the sale of verse. However, in The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800-1870, William Charvat shows that poetry by women sold better than that of men in America before the Civil War. No comparable study has been done for the industry since 1870, but we know, for instance, that in the 1890's Ella Wheeler Wilcox's poems were "best sellers," and that, beginning in the 1920's, Edna St. Vincent Millay certainly supported herself with her verse. In fact, her sister, Norma Millay Ellis, recently observed that "Her royalties have helped me live for the last 24 years" (New York Times, February 20, 1974, p. 26).


33 Maria Gowen Brooks, Judith, Esther and Other Poems. Brooks's Zophiel; or, The Bride of Seven (first published in 1833) is the first book-length poem written by an American woman. Although highly praised by the English poet Robert Southey and by Rufus Griswold, the poem never sold well in America, and Brooks withdrew it from the market. Deeply pessimistic, especially concerning the situation of women, the poem contains some remarkable passages, such as "Egla's Song" in Canto VI. Other notable long (500 or more lines) poems were written in the nineteenth century by Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Emma Lazarus, Helen Hunt Jackson, Emily Foote Baldwin, and Ella Wheeler Wilcox. In the 1850's, Sigourney was unable to finish her epic concerning Pocahontas. Long poems, by American women have centered upon international or universal concerns, with little or no emphasis upon national and traditionally epic themes.


21 The year before this poem ["The Witch"] appeared, a similar poem, Harriet Monroe's "Myself," was published in You and I--a volume which contains her best poetry. Monroe (1860-1936) was only a limited poet (although an intelligent and generous editor), but she wrote several striking poems, all of which appear in this volume: besides "Myself," also "The Woman," a vicious attack on men and commercialism (in the Bogart-Baldwin line); and "The Mockery," a sardonic statement echoing Ella Wheeler Wilcox's "A Gray Mood." Monroe's A Poet's Life: Seventy Years in a Changing World, which was finished after her death by Morton Dauwen Zabel, is an interesting history of the literary world at this time.