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Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Updated on October 8, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

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Brief Biography of the Poet

Born on 5 November 1850 in Rock County, Wisconsin to Marcus and Sarah Wheeler, Ella Wheeler was the youngest of four children. The family relocated to Dane County, when Ella was two years old. The family remained in the town of Westport, and Ella lived there until she married in 1884.

After her marriage to Robert Wilcox, the couple moved to Connecticut. Ella's material great-grandfather had served in the Revolutionary War. Her mother wrote poetry, and Ella started writing poetry also.

Ella's whole family often read and studied Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Robert Burns, as well as the contemporary poets. The school that she attended is now named for her, The Ella Wheeler Wilcox School. She attended the University of Wisconsin for a short time but felt that university study was a waste of time.

The poet wanted to devoted herself to writing, and she wanted to make money to help her family. At age fourteen, she wrote prose pieces that were accepted by the New York Mercury.

As a professional writer, Ella wrote pieces for syndicated columns, and she became noted as a newspaper poet. The reporters for the New York American offered her a position as official poet at the royal funeral of Queen Victoria. Ella's poems were well loved in Britain and studied in British schools. Ella's occasional poem for the funeral is titled "The Queen's Last Ride."

"Solitude" and Other Poems

Ella Wheeler Wilcox's most widely noted poem the title "Solitude"; the following often quoted lines are taken from that poem: "Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone."

The poem plays out in three riming eight-line stanzas. The poem's theme is a dramatization of the tension between a positive and a negative attitude: "For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth, / But has trouble enough of its own." The poem essentially avers that while a negative attitude repulses others, the positive attracts them.

In "A Lovers' Quarrel," the speaker dramatizes her lover as the Sea, with whom she quarrels and then runs away to a Town. Town satisfies her for a while, but then she starts thinking about her love for the Sea, and decides that Sea is her true love and thus returns to him.

In "Go Plant a Tree," the speaker marvels at the glory of a tree; planting the tree makes one feel wonderful, and then watching it grow is even more special.

The speaker claims that "Nature has many marvels; but a tree / Seems more than marvellous. It is divine." Rivers are "garrulous" but trees simply hold "pleasant converse with the winds and birds."

And then the speaker compares the tree to rocks and decides that "Rocks are majestic; but, unlike a tree, / They stand aloof, and silent." Even the ocean does not compare favorably with a tree: "Of ocean billows breaking on the shore / There sounds the voice of turmoil. But a tree / Speaks ever of companionship and rest."

Reputation as a Poet

While she was well known and even made a living by her writing, Ella has fallen out of favor with literary scholars. The New Critics judged her poetic contributions harshly. They disdained her didacticism and her sentimentality. She is often categorized as a popular rather than literary writer.

Reading of Wilcox' "Solitude" by Emma Fielding

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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