"Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
Poetess and Spiritualist."
by Isabel Ramsay

The Occult Review. London: William Rider and son, Ltd. Christmas Number, December 1919, p. 336-340.


"The scarlet city by the lake shocked by a badger-girl, whose verses out-Swinburne Swinburne and out-Whitman Whitman."

THESE were the useful headlines (from an advertising point of view) with which an indignant daily greeted the publication of Ella Wheeler Wilcox's Poems of Passion, thirty-four years ago. The New York Sun published two columns of ridicule and condemnation of the book, which was followed by a lengthy review in the Chicago Herald concluding with the following pithy comment:

It is to be hoped that Miss Ella Wheeler will relapse into Poems of Decency now that the New York Sun has voiced the opinion of Respectability that her Poems of Passion are like the songs of half-tipsy wantons.
Here was an introduction to the literary world and the public for a hitherto unknown poetess whose verses had, up till then, been known only to a limited circle of magazine readers! On the waves of the storm which raged round Poems of Passion during the few months following its publication Ella Wheeler Wilcox rose from a life of obscurity and poverty to dizzy heights of notoriety! Later she was able to live down this notoriety and make for herself a name which has spread over several continents.

Before these years of wealth and success, Ella Wheeler Wilcox had spent her life on an obscure farm in Wisconsin, the monotony of which was varied by an occasional visit to Milwaukee. She did not drift into writing poetry, or struggle, like so many writers and artists have had to do, against lack of sympathy and encouragement with her ideals in this direction. Rather was she swept into the rocky path of Literature and steadied and helped along its way by her mother, who, even before her child was born, had made up her mind that it would be a girl, that she would be a writer, that she would travel and do all the things that she herself had longed to do but had never accomplished owing to adverse circumstances.

All these wishes have been realized in the case of Mrs. Wilcox's daughter. At the age of seven she wrote her first story, at nine she started to write verse, and at the age of fourteen her first prose composition was published in the New York Mercury. Always she plodded steadily on, refusing to allow the most persistent rebuffs from editors and refusals of MSS. to more than reduce her to a temporary lapse of feminine tears which were followed by renewed attacks. She tells, with thoughtless naivete, the story of a poem which had been sent into ten editors' sanctums, only to be returned in due course to its Wisconsin home. The tenth editor attached to the by now tattered and aged MS. the following comment:

"This is a dead dog, better bury it."

However, the persistent young writer didn't "bury it." Instead, she sent it to an eleventh editor, who, in return, nearly succeeded in giving her heart shock by accepting the poem and sending her a cheque for $75 in payment thereof!

A week after Poems of Passion were published, Ella Wheeler became Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and from then on till 1916 her life was one continual round of success, travel and the joys of daily companionship with the man she loved. In that year Robert Wilcox died and his widow, for the first time in her life, realized to the full the meaning of inconsolable grief and irreparable loss. For a time she mourned as though she would lose her reason, and the only ray of hope that consoled her in these first tragic days was the thought that her husband's spirit would come to her and commune with her. This hope was born of a mutual belief which had existed between these two that the spirit lives after death, and in the possibility of communication between the two worlds; it was strengthened by solemn promises made between them that whoever should die first would communicate -- or at least make every effort to communicate -- with the other.

"Over and over, solemnly and sacredly during three decades of years had the promise been made to me, and I had faith enough to believe that it would be kept. And yet, the weeks became months, the months drifted into a year without any proof coming to me from the spirit world where I believed my husband to be living. I felt I must be right in this belief since I was no more than following in the lead of such great men as Sir Oliver Lodge, Lombroso, Maeterlinck, Sir William Crookes, Sir Alfred Turner and Flammarion. But my heart cried out for proof. At last, in despair, I went to California, the home of spiritual research, and wandered wearily from one to another of many societies, there seeking that peace which comes with conviction. Having been a believer in the teachings of Theosophy for many years, I went first of all to the Wise Ones -- the Theosophists -- them to a Home of Truth -- a metaphysical college founded by Anna Rix Militz -- then to the Rosicrucians and the Oshapians and I read countless works on metaphysical and psychic matters to give me strength and endurance. As well as this I consulted mediums and psychics far and near -- but all to no purpose. I had always believed that communication with spirits in the other world was possible, but up till then my life had been so perfect that there had been no need for me to put that belief to the test. Finally, one day I received a message from my husband bidding me to return to our home at Granite Bay, Connecticut, to attain there by prayer a state of poise and tranquility that would enable him to reach me. I did as he directed, and here also (since I had been advised to give up consulting professional mediums and psychics) I tried my first experiments with the ouija-board. All my first efforts with this mechanical device failed and I was on the verge of despair when one day a friend came to see me. I asked her if she had ever tried the ouija-board. She replied that she had not, but that she would love to experiment with it. In a thoughtless spirit of laughter she placed her hands on the board and immediately it began to move as though impelled by an electric force. I called to my friend Mrs. Randall, who was visiting me at the time, to come and take down the letters which the board was spelling out with such rapidity. When the board ceased moving we read the following message.

"'Brave one, keep up your courage. Love is all there is. I am with you always. I await your arrival.'

"The promise had been kept at last!

"Since then I have been in constant communication with my husband. He tells me of his life in that world and of the people he meets there, and he advises me about my affairs and movements in this life. Acting on his advice and wholly contrary to my own sentiments, I went to France last year, taking Mrs. Randall with me. There we gave entertainments for the soldiers. Two months ago, impelled by the same voice, I came to England, where I have been doing much that lay in my power to help and benefit those who have suffered by this terrible war. Further than this, my husband has dictated to me the seven opening chapters of a book which I intend to bring out very shortly."

The foregoing is a statement of belief by a woman passionately in earnest, one can see, and just as passionately sincere.

As a personality, Ella Wheeler Wilcox is a strange mixture of virile force and mental and physical laxity. At one minute she is talking with a feverish, unnatural energy, and the next she has relapsed into a sort of semi-conscious coma, which makes you wonder if she has altogether forgotten your presence. You are just debating which points of etiquette you should follow -- whether to sit perfectly still until she speaks again or to cough gently and make your exit -- when she rouses herself with a start and resumes her interrupted flow of conversation. She dresses very cleverly and, like all American women who take to public speaking, she speaks extremely well. Amongst a crowd she is intensely alive and interested in those she meets and in all that is taking place around her, but alone she sinks into herself and becomes limp and lifeless like a faded flower.

My first meeting with Ella Wheeler Wilcox was in her suite of rooms at the luxurious club which American women have established for themselves in Mayfair. A dance was being held that evening, and the halls and stairways were crowded with an overflow of youth and beauty from the ballroom, past which I had to thread my way to Mrs. Wilcox's rooms above. As I sat talking with her the sound of music floated up, merry shouts of laughter and the shuffle of many feet.

Thinking over it all afterwards, I felt that the contrast between the vivid brightness and colour of the care-free riot of youth downstairs with that calm, shadowed room upstairs, represented very poignantly the contrast which exists between the grief-worn Ella Wheeler Wilcox of to-day and the Ella Wheeler Wilcox of thirty-four years ago, who dared to launch into a world in which Victorian ideals and conventions still existed, her Poems of Passion.