"ELLA WHEELER WILCOX" by Edward Thomas.
Poetry and drama. 1(1) (March 1913): 33-42.
London: The Poetry Bookshop, 1913-


From all that I have heard it seems likely that more copies of Wilcox's works have been sold than during their lifetime were sold of Wordsworth's, Coleridge's, Shelley's and Keat's together. (I drop the "Mrs" and the further unnecessary distinction of "Ella Wheeler" because one says "Wilcox" just as one says "Shakespeare.") Some nibbling faddists may argue that, since ours is not an age of poetry, her very circulation proves her no poet. Others would have it that she must be a greater writer than Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, or Keats : "not perhaps" they would say "of pure literature, whatever that may be, but of palpitating human stuff." I should not care to go so far. Only, a poetess who has slain her thousands can no more be ignored than the Crystal Palace or Sandow's Cocoa. We must be on our guard lest this distinction between pure literature and palpitating human stuff should have become an acomplished fiction unknown to us. We must not be content to sniff the empyrean with unpublished or unsold poets. "The most widely read poet of the day," as her publishers proudly entitle her, concerns the superior person as well as the man, woman, or child who is allured by this addition sum on the cover of her Selected Poems:
21 from Poems of Passion.
21   "    Poems of Pleasure.
14   "    Poems of Power.
 8    "    Poems of Cheer.
 8    "    Kingdom of Love.
 6    "    Poems of Progress.
 6    "    Poems of Sentiment.
 6    "    Poems of Experience.
 6    "    Maurine.
 4    "    Yesterdays.
---
100 Poems.
Even if we can resist her and her tens of thousands, ought we to resist her? Should we not rather sink ourselves into the multitudes joyously devouring this palpitating human stuff?

There are many inducements. For example, her poems are to be had everywhere, not only at the Poetry Bookshop. Furthermore, the price is uniform and low--one shilling a volume. Also the titles cannot be forgotten, though a little confusion may arise from their very simplicity, so that I am never sure whether Poems of Vice and Poems of Fun have yet appeared. Then, again, such inspiriting reports as to the potency of her works are current. They will move an elephant and will not hurt a child. Only the other day I was assured at a dinner (whether given by or to Wilcox) her publishers, printers, binders, and the rest of the humbler auxiliaries of her fame, with others of the outer world, had voluntarily stood up to announce either that they were the better for reading Wilcox or that they never let a day pass without doing so. Is there any other living poet, even with a small circulation, of whom this can be said? Has Mr. Yeats had the pleasure, or Mr. W.H. Davies, or Mr. Crowley? I doubt whether even among prose writers, whose temptations are notoriously by comparison inconsiderable, there is one who has made so many better men.

The poetess is not unaware of her exalted position. Her manner of accepting and holding it is the best proof of her greatness. Take the sonnet where she refutes the opinion that "Anticipation is sweeter than realisation":

It may be, yet I have not found it so.
  In those first golden dreams of future fame
  I did not find such happiness as came
When toil was crowned with triumph. Now I know
My words have recognition, and will go
  Straight to some listening heart; my early aim,
  To win the idle glory of a name,
Pales like a candle in the noonday's glow.

So with the deeper joys of which I dreamed:
  Life yields more rapture than did childhood's fancies,
  And each year brings more pleasure than I waited.
Friendship proves truer than of old it seemed,
  And all beyond youth's passion-hued romances,
  Love is more perfect than anticipated.

I have quoted this entirely because it admits us to intimacy with one of the forces--"Does it?" interrupts an old Wilcoxian; "if so, then the less Wilcox she." For the moment the interruption can be ignored; if, that is to say, it is not refuted by the further quotations I shall give. Describing a female character with a great talent for lowering things, she says:
Whenever I encounter her, in such a nameless way
She gives me the impression I am at my worst that day.
And the hat that was imported (and which cost me half a sonnet)
With just one glance from her round eyes becomes a Bowery bonnet.
This can hardly be other than a graceful, half-humorous allusion to her princely prices. And if the end of "All in a Coach and Four" is artistically questionable, so it gives us beyond question another similar glimpse of the poetess:
It is only a foolish and fanciful song
That came to me as I rode along,
    All in a couch and four.
The humble admirer paying a shilling for "The Englishman" may well glow as he thinks that by this very act he is contributing to that coach and four or its maintenance. I find an even more charming indoor glimpse of the poetess in this, the second of her "Songs of a Country Home":
One of the sweetest hours is this
(Of all I think we like it best):
A little restful oasis
Between the breakfast, and the post.
Just south of coffee and of toast,
Just north of daily task and duty;
Just west of dreams, this Island gleams
A fertile spot of peace and beauty.

We wander out across the lawn;
We idle by a bush in bloom;
The household pets come following on;
Or if the day is one of gloom,
We loiter in a pleasant room,
Or from a casement lean and chatter.
Then comes the mail, like sudden hail,
And off we scatter.

It is pleasant to think of Wilcox in full enjoyment of the simple good things of this world. For domestic felicity raised to the point of ostentation, there is nothing in the life of Keats to equal it, nothing in that of Wordsworth to surpass it.

Wilcox is not lavish of such glimpses. She is not very fond of talking about herself. As the Wilcoxian aforementioned implied, she does not frequently and unmistakably unlock her heart. Great care must be taken not to attribute to her what she wrote dramatically or histrionically. Sometimes I feel safe. Surely it is the poetess herself who vindicates against a certain decadent school the "old rhythm and rhyme":

Oh! the great pulse of it, right from the heart,
      Art or no art.
Surely hers are the sentiments of "The Truth Teller":
...Yet out of the blackness groping,
   My heart finds a world in bloom;
For it somehow is fashioned for hoping,
   And it cannot live in the gloom.
Nor should I much hesitate to say that her books prove her to be an upholder of her sex, a believer in progress, a sympathiser with advanced thought. Thus she has said, once and for all, in an address to men:
We do appreciate God's thought
In forming you, before He brought
Us into life. His art was crude,
But oh, so virile in its rude

Large elemental strength: and then
He learned His trade in making men;
Learned how to mix and mould the clay
And fashion in a finer way.

Her belief in progress is written everywhere, whether or not she is recording a dream, as in--
I dreamed a voice, of one God-authorised,
Cried loudly thro' the world, "Disarm! Disarm!"
or in the poem where she dreams of a world where there were no beggars or unemployed, each man owned a plot of ground, children "grew like garden flowers," motherhood was an art, prisons were replaced by schools, and so on. As she speaks for the whole of her sex, so she speaks for those "who cannot speak for themselves," the animals, saying, "I am the voice of the voiceless," and proclaiming:
The same force formed the sparrow
  That fashioned man, the king;
The God of the Whole gave a spark of soul
  To each furred and feathered thing.
And I am my brother's keeper,
  And I will fight his fight,
And speak the word for beast and bird,
  Till the world shall set things right.
Her sympathy with advanced thought may be further briefly indicated by the fact that she has written:
      Pain has its use and place;
Its ministry of holiness and grace.
With respect be it spoken, however, there is little in what Wilcox says under these important headings which distinguish her from other members of circles in sympathy with advanced thought, etc. "But," says the old Wilcoxian, "they speak in prose; Wilcox in song." It is a fine distinction. She says in verse what nearly all who think with her have said in the ephemeral form of prose. I say this, with the reservation that perhaps, after all, Wilcox is not expressing her own convictions in her poetry. For it is a great and notable part of her faculty to constitute herself the spokesman of large bodies of her fellow-creatures. Instances have been given; similar ones abound to a degree perhaps even beyond the belief of my old Wilcoxian. I doubt sometimes if she means us to take these lines as her own private feeling:
I never stand above a bier and see
  The seal of death set on some well-loved face
But that I think, "One more to welcome me
  When I shall cross the intervening space
Between this land and that one 'over there';
One more to make the strange Beyond seem fair."
She may have written it that a more simple soul might read it and find comfort or recite it to a multitude and wring their hearts with celestial gladness. So, too, the poem on the little white hearse which she saw during a walk--"the morning somehow seemed less smiling and gay" after it--bears no mark of intense personal experience. It is a lucid versification of a tender sentiment. Another example is the poem beginning, "God, what a joy it is to plant a tree!" It is suitable for recitation, especially where a "regard for inanimate nature" and the "dignity of the earth" is to be fostered among the humble. It does not suggest tree-planting: a less earthy poem could not be imagined.

It is true that Wilcox speaks with admiration of art "straight from the heart," but then in the next poem she asks pardon for a story--"a foolish and fanciful song"--which came to her in her coach and four. She has a warm, impulsive heart. She is all sympathy. Wherever, in her own fancy, in the newspaper, in a book, she comes across what might cheer or melt a human being she is inclined to make a poem of it, and often does. She has "A Ballade" where "the unborn dead" plead for the mothers who have rejected them:

"But may we pray for them?" the phantoms plead.
"Yea, for they need your prayers," the Angel said.
She has in the same volume two allusions to perfume and lace combined, thus:
Like some pervading scent that clings
To laces, touched by vanished hands.
She takes the side of women as against men, of poor as against rich, asserting:
And in a tiny cabin, shaped for two,
The space for happiness is just as great
As in a palace.
But she does not, as might a poet less powerfully organized, allow herself to be fettered by a view that she happens to have expressed. On the contrary she has the courage to express a different one with equal vehemence. She cries, "Love much"; she also makes one who has prayed for love and had it regret that he had not prayed instead for a contented mind. She says:
I know that the earth exists,
  It is none of my business why;
I cannot find out what it's all about,
  I would be waste time to try.
She says also in another "Poem of Power," that "Life is a privilege," and remarks:
What stores of knowledge wait our opening key!
She sings love as fierce as the tiger, and sings also--
You can make a little Eden
  Of the sphere you occupy....
And--
Come, cuddle your head on my shoulder, dear,
    Your head like the golden-rod,
And we will go sailing away from here
    To the beautiful land of Nod....
It is impossible to tell if she prefers amorous excess or "scattering seeds of kindness," or would combine the two. Her breadth is great. She combines the tolerance of "All roads that lead to God are good" with an insistence on the fact that an atheist is brought by adversity to beseech Jehovah. Either view is suitable for recitation. Wilcox, out of the abundance of her heart and her intellect, turns both to eloquence.

When she has for the moment taken a side she employs all her warm heart on it. She likes strong expressions, of breaking hearts, etc. This passionateness is not assumed. It is natural to her to say that music kills as many as war:

But here, in the halls of fashion,
Hearts break, and make no moan....
to make a soldier say:
I shall go home from the wars,
Crowned with glory, seamed with scars....
to make the sun meet the mist thus:
Close to his heart she was clasped and kissed,
    She swooned in love's alarms,
And dead lay the beautiful pale-faced Mist
    In the Sunbeam's passionate arms....
to say that Keats wrote his last poem at the inn where Nelson "last looked on the lovely face which made his world." Again and again she impersonates a man or woman crying out in this manner:
And on nights like this, when my blood runs riot
    With the fever of youth and its mad desires,
When my brain in vain bids my heart be quiet,
     When my breast seems the centre of lava-fires....
Of herself and the sea she exclaims:
We two were lovers, the Sea and I;
We plighted our troth 'neath a summer sky.
And all through the riotous ardent weather
We dreamed, and loved, and rejoiced together.
She makes the sea, the dawn, the night, the bee, as amorous as herself. It should be observed, too, that she is not one of those who believe in "Platonic" affections: more than once she flings her fiery laughter at them and at talk between men and women "tinctured with science and everything else save love."

In fact, if there be a personal element in Wilcox's work, showing itself perhaps unconsciously, and not, as the greater part is, consciously put forward as a comfort or advice to weaker brethren, it is this sexual element, so pervading that in another writer it might be called obsession. She thinks not only of falling and fallen women, of the childless mother praying for children in the next world, of the spinster questioning--

Wherefore the wonder of my woman's breast,
By lips of lover and of babe unpressed...?
of little girls, "dear little Mothers, of Men to be"; of the need of sexual teaching--
It must be the mother's teaching of the purpose, and the cause
And God's glory, lying under sex appeal;
but she thinks of married men recalling "the crimson madness of her mouth," red lips that "were pearl-edged bumpers of wine" when they laughed; and of "the squanderer,"
     With Love's large fortune spent
In petty traffic, unproductive, mean---
A pauper, cursed with impotent desire.
Thus she unexpectedly mingles echoes from the propagandist and from Swinburne. For that she is a descendant of that poet no reader can doubt who knows "Ad Finem" in Poems of Passion with five such reckless verses as this:
I know, in the way that sins are reckoned,
     This thought is a sin of the deepest dye;
But I know, too, if an angel beckoned,
     Standing close by the Throne on High,
And you, adown by the gates infernal,
     Should open your loving arms and smile,
I would turn my back on things supernal,
     To lie on your breast a little while.
The feeling is repeated in her last book.

Wilcox is not ashamed to repeat. It is part of her lofty vocation as adviser to men and nations--I say "nations" because, for instance, she bids England consider the position of Canada:

England, father and mother in one,
Hear the cry of your son....
and addresses the Japanese as "Brave little people of large aims." How many times does she repeat the lesson contained in this?--
Don't look for the flaws as you go through life.
Well she knows that you cannot have too much of a good thing. Nor will she refuse to repeat what has often been thought and expressed, as when she says:
Whatever is--is best....
or--
No question is ever settled
    Until it is settled right.
Like Shakespeare, she is a plagiarist, but her motive--to do good and to sell--justifies her, as art would not. In her opinion it is the artist's business, even the actor's, to serve mankind, and to this service he must consecrate himself, must "weed from his heart the roots of wrong." She herself has achieved this self-mastery. It is to be seen, for instance, in her confessed scorn of mere art, and a hundred times in her practice. She writes that he who runs may read: therefore she writes as she runs along--always thinking of others, what they would like, what would be good for them. Even in a grey mood she thinks of mankind, and can say:
This world is a vaporous jest at best,
   Tossed off by the gods in laughter;
And a cruel attempt at wit were it
   If nothing better came after.
It is reeking with hearts that ache and break,
   Which we ought to comfort and strengthen,
As we hurry away to the end, my friend,
   And the shadows behind us lengthen.
A more frequent mood is that of "A Song of Life":
   In the strength and the glory of power,
      In the pride and the pleasure of wealth,
   (For who dares dispute me my dower
      Of talents and youth-time and health?)
   I can laugh at the world and its sages---
      I am greater than seers who are sad,
   For he is most wise in all ages
      Who knows how to be glad.
And she bids common men--
Come up where the rare golden wine is
      Apollo distils in my sight,
And your life shall be happy as mine is,
      And as full of delight.
If they cannot in the flesh ascend to her heights she can tell them what will be gained in the next world by a thoroughly well-conducted life; for she depicts a simple soul in heaven meeting the friends who had preceded her:
They led her through the palace halls;
From gleaming mirrors on the walls
She saw herself, with radiant mien,
And robed in splendour like a queen,
While glory round about her shone.
Here she says what the simple oft have said, and though perhaps they have never so well expressed it, they must feel that, with a better education, they might apporach her. That is her triumph. She says familiar things energetically, for the most part cheerily, not once but many times. A man who has his Wilcox needs no Shakespeare. The more he reads Wilcox the less he thinks of Shakespeare; he growls: "I never heard of any one rising from Shakespeare a better man." Not that Wilcox is a jealous god; it simply happens that Wilcoxians do not want the mere art of those who--
Sing no more unto the hearts of men,
But for the critic's pen.
They can be content with the fiery-hearted, stainless lady who gives them "that feeling of reserve force and energy"--as one of her countrymen has written--"which does not easily tire, and is so necessary for the successful prosecution of one's life-work." Who, if he had to choose between Wilcox and Life on the one hand, Shakespeare and Poetry on the other, would hesitate, even had I never written this little and all too-imperfect encomium? Her glory is the more bright that it has been attained with the help only of a metrical skill commonly possessed by minor poets, a light sympathy with all sorts of ideas, and without principle or sense of beauty.

EDWARD THOMAS