What Life Means to Me
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Cosmopolitan 42 (December 1906):203-207.

Exhilaration, anticipation, realization, usefulness, growth--these things life has always meant and is meaning to me.  Looking backward, I recall few mornings when I did not greet the day with a certain degree of exhilarating expectancy.  Even in times of trouble and sorrow this peculiar quality of mind helped me over obstacles to happiness which, retrospectively viewed, seem insurmountable.  A peculiar spiritual egotism possibly it might be called, but it led me to look for special dispensations of Providence in my behalf, and a setting aside of nature's seeming laws and regulations, as well as the violating of reason's codes, that I might be obliged.

Facing the deadly monotony of the commonplace, as a child and a young girl, I always looked for the unusual and romantic to occur.  Environed by the need of petty economics, I always expected sudden opulence.  Far from the world's center of life and action, I felt that hosts of rare souls were approaching; and, while hungry in heart and brain, I believed that splendid banquets were in preparation for me. What would otherwise have been lonely, troubled, and difficult years were made enjoyable by this exalted state of the imagination.

Such concentration of expectancy, of course, brought some degree of result. Unusual things did happen.  And that same virile, vivid imagination magnified them, and made them seem colossal confirmations of my hopes.  The commonplace meadows blossomed with flowers of beauty; and buttercups and daisies looked to me like rare orchids and hothouse roses. Between what really happened to enlarge and brighten my horizon, and what I believed had happened, the world widened, existence grew in interest, and earth palpitated with new experiences as the years passed.  Always I expected more and more of life, and always it came in some guise.

Such a temperament must have its seasons of despair, its melancholy moods, its self-depreciating periods, and its times of utter dejection. In early youth, such moods came and went like the sudden changes in our American climate in a spring month.  But in my darkest hours there was always a consciousness of life's wonderful interest--an intensity of enjoyment even of my own miseries.  I was frequently sorry for the dull souls who did not know how to be so unutterably wretched as I could be.

I cannot recall a moment of my life when I wished I had not been born.  I have always realized the inestimable privilege of living.  Yet, despite this fact, life in that early period, even, meant bitter battles with those moods of discouragement and despondency--moods which seemed to grow in duration and intensity as I entered more fully into an understanding of the world and of myself, and realized how much I wanted to do, to have, and to be, and how difficult was the attainment, virtually alone, and remote from the arenas of action.  For my home was in Wisconsin, on a prairie, a dozen miles from a town, and five from a post-office.  When a post-office was established three miles away I felt I was beginning to enjoy the luxuries of a metropolis.

It required little assistance from outside sources to awaken my mind to large rejoicings and to change gloom and glory, in those early days.  And, thank God, that quality of mind has always remained with me.  It is a composite quality, with equal ingredients of imagination, vanity, unreason, and philosophy.  But it is better than a million-dollar dower for any woman to start with in life.  That I placed exaggerated values on many things and events, I lived to learn, often after I obtained the things or passed through the events.  I watered my own stock, and frequently found it worthless when offered to my later judgment for sale.  But this was the best possible education, of greater value than Latin and Greek for my life’s purposes.

The ability to express myself in verse and prose at the age of eight led me into print at fourteen.  Small successes dazzled my sight so that succeeding large failures were not fully seen, or lent such light that I was able to grope my way safely over the dark places.  At first the pleasure of writing and the pleasure of having people notice my work seemed all-satisfying. It brought, however, its pains as well as its joys, for unless I was praised, shadows covered my sun.  There must always be discontent and pain for those who lean largely for enjoyment on the approval which comes from others.

Then I began to earn money and to be helpful to the family.  Oh, the wonder and the joy of it!  I was the youngest of four, and there was an ever-growing need of money in the home and in the homes of married brothers and sisters.  There were nephews and nieces to assist, and the thought that my pen could bestow benefits upon others electrified me.  I was very young, and there was a certain vanity in my unselfishness—a pride in being looked up to and leaned upon by my elders.  This, too, as years went on, brought its punishment.  For, being so conscious of my good deeds, I was hurt if there seemed a lack of appreciation on the part of their recipients.  I had not yet learned that “there is no such thing as ingratitude to one who does a good deed and forgets it,” and that to look for any return—even gratitude from another—changes benevolence to barter and sale.  To do good for good’s sake, and to think no more about it, believing the seed will grow into a harvest of goodness for the world—that alone brings happiness.  Yet in the main I found great satisfaction in what I did with my pen, and have received full measure of appreciation from the recipients of my small but continuous benefactions.  If one disappointed me in the use of the opportunity I offered, another happily surprised me.  God’s law of compensation has never yet failed me.

Then there came an hour when a new aspect of life confronted me.  It was a grave hour when I realized that I was not a mere troubadour, to sing by the roadside my song to please the world’s ear, and to take the pennies and the flowers cast me, but that my talent meant responsibility. It meant influence: it meant noblesse oblige.  I was startled when the consciousness first came—startled and not altogether pleased.  Then it began to assume dignity, and life was newly enriched.  Instead of being merely a helper in the home, I realized I must be a helper in the universe.  I must mold thought, guide conduct, and sustain purpose by my talent; and from that hour humanity became my family, and all men and women my blood kin, and life and work grew in pleasure and importance.

When the strong, true arms of love lifted the necessity of earning money from my shoulders, there was no danger that indolence and pleasure would drive away the habit of work.  I knew I had been given my talent for a purpose, and that to neglect its use would be a sin.  Only when I stop breathing shall I feel my work is finished here.

Two crude books published before I left the “teens” for the “twenties” brought no profit, and only a local recognition.  I had begun to be an object of social courtesies in Western cities; residents of Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis invited me to their homes, and life assumed new and fascinating aspects.  Yet these very aspects brought large discouragements.  They tested my will power, my good sense, and my unselfishness; and often I learned how far I was from possessing the strength of character I had believed to be my chief quality.  I was a social creature by nature, and the taste of city life and its pleasures intoxicated me; but I realized I must do one of three things: curtail my enjoyment of these pleasures, lessen my helpfulness to others, or increase my income.  The latter method, I reasoned, would permit me to follow both inclination and duty, and I set myself to the task.  Poems swarmed from my pen; short stories were forced from it; and nine of every ten took from three to a dozen trips, back and forth, from Wisconsin to New York, before they found a purchaser.  Slowly but steadily my income increased; not enough to meet all my growing requirements, but enough to give me courage to persevere.

Life always meant more to me than literary achievement.  To be a poet only was never the sum total of my ambitions.  I longed to be a cultured woman, to study languages, to be an athlete, to dress well, to travel, and to make myself an ornament to home and to society.  I was a good horsewoman at an early age, and I danced well, and I wanted to add all other outdoor and indoor accomplishments to my repertoire.  All these things required money, and there was no source of income save my pen to cover such expenses.  It was a hard battle, a battle fought with the world and with myself; and there were many defeats and many mistakes and much lack of judgment.  In my restless eagerness to push ahead I often put myself back.  I plunged into roads I imagined the great highways of Progress, and found them by-paths leading to marshes and jungles, or to the Land of Nowhere.  But always each mistake served as a stair on which I climbed to a larger understanding of the world, of myself, and of life’s real meaning.

I recall one serious, discouraged hour of taking stock of life, when I felt I was farther away from my goal than ever before, and when I came to a decision that nothing but absolute adherence to duty, however humdrum, distasteful, and unsatisfactory, was worth while.  It was on that day I wrote the following verses:

   I may not reach the heights I seek,
     My untried strength may fail me;
   Or, halfway up the mountain peak,
     Fierce tempests may assail me.
   But though that place I never gain,
   Herein lies comfort for my pain--
                I will be worthy of it.

   I may not triumph in success,
     Despite my earnest labor,
   I may not grasp results that bless
     The efforts of my neighbor.
   But though my goal I never see,
   This thought shall always dwell with me--
                I will be worthy of it.

  The golden glory of love's light
     May never fall on my way.
   My path may lead through shadowed night,
     Like some deserted byway.
   But though life's dearest joy I miss,
   There lies a nameless strength in this--
                I will be worthy of it.

Marriage in 1884 took me to the wonderful land of my dreams—the East.  My winter home in New York and my summer home on the Connecticut shore of the beautiful Long Island Sound opened up large vistas of ever-increasing opportunities for improvement, pleasure, and usefulness.  I studied; I read; I indulged in physical culture; I became intimate with the sea, and knew the intoxication—possible only to one inland born and bred—found in and on the ocean waves.  That which we have always had, we never fully appreciate.  I entertained and was entertained by many of the people whose names alone had enlarged my horizon in the old Western life.  I felt I was dwelling in an enchanted land, and that feeling has never left me, despite some disappointments and disillusionments.  The materialization into personalities of some of the famous names I had known, proved not always happiness or satisfaction.

Talent and genius had seemed to me like two white sentinels guarding the door of the human mind from the intrusion of ignoble jealousy, petty envy, and unworthy selfishness.  The gifted man and woman, I had thought, must be the great man and woman.  I did not always find it so, and many of the halos I had bestowed upon imagined personalities had to be modified, or “cut over,” or removed wholly, when the actual personage was encountered.  Yet life, with its accustomed prodigality, gave me far more happiness than disappointment in these new associations.  Friendships, vital, educational, and lasting, have resulted, and life has grown richer with each passing year, and its meaning more potent with each experience.

There have always been those along my life’s pathway seeking to discourage me, to detract from my work, and to question my point of view.  I suppose they were a part of my development, and more than likely they saved me from that most disastrous fault of youth—self-complacency.  Early I was told that all had been said before me, by great writers; that I could only repeat, in a crude form, messages already delivered by inspired masters.  Still I wrote on, as thoughts came, and believed I had been given my own personal message for the world.  Later, as I made certain successes, I was told that my work was ephemeral and only ranked with the third class in literature, and that it could have no lasting effect upon the world.  Still I continued writing, glad to do what was given me to do, though in the third class, and satisfied to let its influence die with me so long as it was helpful while it lasted.  Critics have called my poetry versification, my prose platitudes.  And while they have criticized I have kept at work.  I have been assured that rare, choice souls did not recognize me in literature; that I appealed only to the common, undiscriminating minds.  And yet I have worked on.

When I turned my literary craft from the still waters of magazines to the large, rushing rivers of American newspapers, I was given up by these same critics and by my many personal acquaintances, as one intellectually damned.  They said I was prostituting my talent, and those who heretofore insisted that I had never occupied any eminence in literature, now seemed to think that I had fallen from some hitherto unrecognized altitude.  Nevertheless, I kept to my own ideals and followed the light of my own spirit.  Life was too big, feeling too intense, time too short, to wait for books and magazines as a means of expression.  There was so much to say to an appreciative and ever-increasing audience that plain prose must assist her more beautiful sister, poetry.

Every new phase of life gave me a new message to humanity.  Years of blest and satisfying companionship as a wife, where respect supplemented love, a brief but wonderful knowledge of motherhood, a domestic and social life full of rich and beautiful experiences, travel, and acquaintance with rare souls of earth, all have made and are making life mean to me more and more exhilaration, anticipation, realization, usefulness, and growth.

To be a part of God’s great universe, to be one of his voices, to be a worker and a helper, means to me the fulness of satisfaction.  I expected much of life; it has given, in all ways, more than I expected.  Everything has happened.  I have known loneliness, discontent, trouble.  I have waited years for what I felt I must obtain immediately; yet for each hour of pain I have known three hours of joy, and life has been good, and grows better as I walk forward.  Love has been more loyal and lasting, friendship sweeter and more comprehensive, work more enjoyable, and fame, because of its aid to usefulness, more satisfying than early imagination pictured.

All hail to life—life here, and life beyond!  For earth is but the preparatory school for a larger experience, for a greater usefulness.

I have come into closer acquaintance with surrounding realms, with the passing of each decade.  The impression of  my early youth, that invisible helpers were near those who strove to do right and who sought the heights, became first a conviction and is now a knowledge.

I know we are building our heaven
   As we journey along by the way;
Each thought is a nail that is driven
   In structures that cannot decay,
And the mansion at last shall be given
   To us as we build it to-day.
By Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Cosmopolitan 42 (December 1906):203-207.