Gray, Janet (ed.)
She wields a pen : American women poets of the nineteenth century.
Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.
p. 222-228


ELLA WHEELER WILCOX was born in Johnstown Center, Wisconsin, youngest of four children in a farming family. Her mother encouraged her to read. She attended public schools and the University of Wisconsin. She wrote her first novel at age nine and published her first essay at fifteen. By eighteen she was earning money as a writer. Her first book, Drops of Water (1872) was a collection of temperance verse. By 1880 she was part of Milwaukee's literary circle. Her Poems of Passion (1883) was initially rejected by a publisher because of their erotic content but, when accepted by another publisher, sold 60,000 copies in two years. Though a pioneering and influential advocate for women's sexual pleasure, she held rather conventional views on gender roles. She married Robert Marius Wilcox, a silversmith, in 1884 and moved to Meriden, Connecticut. Their onlly child died in infancy. They travelled widely in Europe and Asia and became involved with theosophy and paranormal exploration. She was a prolific poet, for a time writing daily poems for a newpaper syndicate. She published forty-six books and sustained wide popularity through the 1920s. Near the end of her life she suffered a nervous breakdown after touring World War I camps reciting poems and lecturing on sexually transmitted diseases. Other books include Maurine (1876), Perdita and Other Stories (1886), Poems of Pleasure (1888), Custer and Other Poems (1896), Men, Women, and Emotions (1896), Collected Poems (1924).


When my blood flows calm as a purling river,
When my heart is asleep and my brain has sway,
It is then that I vow we must part for ever,
That I will forget you, and put you away
Out of my life, as a dream is banished
Out of the mind when the dreamer awakes;
That I know it will be when the spell has vanished,
Better for both of our sakes.

When the court of the mind is ruled by Reason,
I know it is wiser for us to part;
But Love is a spy who is plotting treason,
In league with that warm, red rebel, the Heart.
They whisper to me that the King is cruel,
That his reign is wicked, his law a sin,
And every word they utter is fuel
To the flame that smoulders within.

And on nights like this, when my blood runs riot
With the fever of youth and its made [sp.] desires,
When my brain in vain bids my heart be quiet,
When my breast seems the centre of lava-fires,
Oh, then is the time when most I miss you,
And I swear by the stars and my soul and say
That I will have you, and hold you, and kiss you,
Though the whole world stands in the way.

And like Communists, as mad, as disloyal,
My fierce emotions roam out of their lair;
They hate King Reason for being royal--
They would fire his castle, and burn him there.
O Love! they would clasp you, and crush you, and kill you,
In the insurrection of uncontrol.
Across the miles, does this wild war thrill you,
That is raging in my soul?


Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
   Weep, and you weep alone,
For sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
   But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
   Sigh, it is lost on the air,
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
   But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
   Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
   But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
   Be sad, and you lose them all--
There are none to decline your nectar'd wine,
   But alone you must drink life's gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
   Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
   But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
   For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
   Through the narrow aisles of pain.


'Genius, a man's weapon, a woman's burden.' Lamartine

   Dear God! there is no sadder fate in life,
      Than to be burdened so that you cannot
      Sit down contented with the common lot
   Of happy mother and devoted wife.
   To feel your brain wild and your bosom rife
      With all the sea's commotion; to be fraught
      With fires and frenzies which you have not sought,
   And weighed down with the wide world's weary strife.

   To feel a fever always in your breast,
      To lean and hear half in affright, half shame,
      A loud-voiced public boldly mouth your name,
   To reap your hard-sown harvest in unrest,
      And know, however great your meed of fame,
   You are but a weak woman at the best.

In the Night

   Sometimes at night, when I sit and write,
      I hear the strangest things,--
   As my brain grows hot with burning thought,
      That struggles for form and wings,
   I can hear the beat of my swift blood's feet,
      As it speeds with a rush and a whir
   From heart to brain and back again,
      Like a race-horse under the spur.

   With my soul's fine ear I listen and hear
      The tender Silence speak,
   As it leans on the breast of Night to rest,
      And presses his dusky cheek.
   And the darkness turns in its sleep, and yearns
      For something that is kin;
   And I hear the hiss of a scorching kiss,
      As it folds and fondles Sin.

   In its hurrying race through leagues of space,
      I can hear the Earth catch breath,
   As it heaves and moans, and shudders and groans,
      And longs for the rest of Death.
   And high and far, from a distant star,
      Whose name is unknown to me,
   I hear a voice that says, "Rejoice,
      For I keep ward o'er thee!"

   Oh, sweet and strange are the sounds that range
      Through the chambers of the night;
   And the watcher who waits by the dim, dark gates,
      May hear, if he lists aright.

No Classes!

   No classes here! Why, that is idle talk.
      The village beau sneers at the country boor;
   The importuning mendicants who walk
      Our cities' streets despise the parish poor.

   The daily toiler at some noisy loom
      Holds back her garments from the kitchen aid.
   Meanwhile the latter leans upon her broom,
      Unconscious of the bow the laundress made.

   The grocer's daughter eyes the farmer's lass
      With haughty glances; and the lawyer's wife
   Would pay no visits to the trading class,
      If policy were not her creed in life.

   The merchant's son nods coldly at the clerk;
      The proud possessor of a pedigree
   Ignores the youth whose father rose by work;
      The title-seeking maiden scorns all three.

   The aristocracy of blood looks down
      Upon the 'nouveau riche'; and in disdain,
   The lovers of the intellectual frown
      On both, and worship at the shrine of brain.

   'No classes here,' the clergyman has said;
      'We are one family.' Yet see his rage
   And horror when his favourite son would wed
      Some pure and pretty player on the stage.

   It is the vain but natural human way
      Of vaunting our weak selves, our pride, our worth!
   Not till the long-delayed millennial day
      Shall we behold 'no classes' on God's earth.


   Give us that grand word 'woman' once again,
   And let's have done with 'lady': one's a term
   Full of fine force, strong, beautiful, and firm,
   Fit for the noblest use of tongue or pen;
   And one's a word for lackeys. One suggests
   The Mother, Wife, and Sister! One the dame
   Whose costly robe, mayhap, gives her the name.
   One word upon its own strength leans and rests;
   The other minces tiptoe. Who would be
   The perfect woman must grow brave of heart
   And broad of soul to play her troubled part
   Well in life's drama. While each day we see
   The 'perfect lady' skilled in what to do
   And what to say, grace in each tone and act
   ('Tis taught in schools, but needs some native tact),
   Yet narrow in her mind as in her shoe.
   Give the first place then to the nobler phrase,
   And leave the lesser word for lesser praise.

My Grave

   If, when I die, I must be buried, let
   No cemetery engulf me--no lone grot,
   Where the great palpitating world comes not,
   Save when, with heart bowed down and eyelids wet,
   It pays its last sad melancholy debt
   To some outjourneying pilgrim. May my lot
   Be rather to lie in some much-used spot,
   Where human life, with all its noise and fret,
   Throbs on about me. Let the roll of wheels,
   With all earth's sounds of pleasure, commerce, love,
   And rush of hurrying feet surge o'er my head.
   Even in my grave I shall be one who feels
   Close kinship with the pulsing world above;
   And too deep silence would distress me, dead.