Sunday, 20 November 2016

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850 – 1919) – American poet “The Poetess of Passion”

The Poetess of Passion

Ella Wheeler was born on 5th November 1850 in Johnstown, Wisconsin, USA.  Soon after her birth, the family moved to Madison.  Ella began writing poetry at an early age, and became known as "The Poetess of Passion".

You may have heard the line “Laugh and the world laughs with you” which is from Ella’s poem “Solitude”, first published in “The New York Sun” in 1898.   “Ella Wheeler Wilcox was probably the most widely read poet of the day”, selling 100,000 copies of her poetry collection entitled “One Hundred Poems” in the early years of the twentieth century (Hollis, 40). 

When planning his trip to America, Rupert Brooke suggested he might take a “message for the continent of America and for Ella Wheeler” (Hollis, 67).

Ella m arried Robert Wilcox of Meriden, Connecticut in 1884.  They travelled extensively throughout Europe and Asia.  Ella's husband died in 1916.

Ella travelled to France after America entered the First World War in order to read poetry to the American Troops - quite an unertaking for a woman of 67.  They were very pleased to see her and really appreciated her performances. Ella wrote poems for the troops while she was in France and published them in a volume entitled "Hello, Boys".

During her lifetime, Ella wrote and pulished more than 70 books, wrote thousands of poems and also wrote plays and magazine articles.

Ella died on 30th October 1919.  In spite of her fame, Ella Wheeler Wilcox is now one of the ‘forgotten’ poets of the First World War.

“War Mothers” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

There is something in the sound of drum and fife
That stirs all the savage instincts into life.

In the old times of peace we went our ways,
Through proper days
Of little joys and tasks. Lonely at times,
When from the steeple sounded wedding chimes,
Telling to all the world some maid was wife—
But taking patiently our part in life
As it was portioned us by Church and State,
Believing it our fate.
     Our thoughts all chaste
Held yet a secret wish to love and mate
     Ere youth and virtue should go quite to waste.
But men we criticised for lack of strength,
And kept them at arm's length.
Then the war came—
The world was all aflame!
The men we had thought dull and void of power
Were heroes in an hour.
He who had seemed a slave to petty greed
Showed masterful in that great time of need.
He who had plotted for his neighbour's pelf,
Now for his fellows offers up himself.
And we were only women, forced by war
To sacrifice the things worth living for.

Something within us broke,
    Something within us woke,
        The wild cave-woman spoke.

When we heard the sound of drumming,
    As our soldiers went to camp,
    Heard them tramp, tramp, tramp;
As we watched to see them coming,
    And they looked at us and smiled
    (Yes, looked back at us and smiled),
As they filed along by hillock and by hollow,
    Then our hearts were so beguiled
    That, for many and many a day,
    We dreamed we heard them say,
'Oh, follow, follow, follow!'
    And the distant, rolling drum
    Called us 'Come, come, come!'
    Till our virtue seemed a thing to give away.

War had swept ten thousand years away from earth.
    We were primal once again.
    There were males, not modern men;
We were females meant to bring their sons to birth.
    And we could not wait for any formal rite,
    We could hear them calling to us, 'Come to-night;
For to-morrow, at the dawn,
We move on!'
    And the drum
    Bellowed, 'Come, come, come!'
And the fife
Whistled, 'Life, life, life!'

So they moved on and fought and bled and died;
Honoured and mourned, they are the nation's pride.
We fought our battles, too, but with the tide
Of our red blood, we gave the world new lives.
Because we were not wives
We are dishonoured. Is it noble, then,
To break God's laws only by killing men
To save one's country from destruction?
We took no man's life but gave our chastity,
And sinned the ancient sin
To plant young trees and fill felled forests in.

Oh, clergy of the land,
Bible in hand,
All reverently you stand,
    On holy thoughts intent
    While barren wives receive the sacrament!
Had you the open visions you could see
    Phantoms of infants murdered in the womb,
    Who never knew a cradle or a tomb,
Hovering about these wives accusingly.

Bestow the sacrament! Their sins are not well known—
Ours to the four winds of the earth are blown.

Source: "Poems of Purpose" (1919)

Ella features in Volume 1 of Female Poets of the First World War available from

Also available as a download.

Source:  “Now all Roads lead to France  The Last Years of Edward Thomas” by Matthew Hollis (Faber & Faber, London, 2012)