Poems of Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Popular Poet: The Personal and the Political

Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Ella Wheeler Wilcox. From her book New Thought, Common Sense, and What Life Means to Me, 1908

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, a journalist and popular American poet in the late 19th and early 20th century, is little known or studied today. She can't be dismissed as a minor poet, her biographer, Jenny Ballou, says, if the size and appreciation of her audience is what counts. But, Ballou concludes, she should probably be counted as a bad major poet. Wilcox' style is sentimental and romantic, and while she was compared in her lifetime to Walt Whitman because of the feeling she poured into her poems, at the same time she maintained a very traditional form, unlike Whitman or Emily Dickinson.

While few today recognize her name, some of her lines are still very familiar, such as these:

"Laugh and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone."
(from "Solitude")​

She was widely published in women's magazines and literary magazines, and was sufficiently known to be included in Bartlett's Famous Quotations by 1919. But her popularity did not prevent critics of the time from either ignoring her work or rating it poorly, to Wilcox' dismay.

It is ironic that she was able to achieve as a writer what was still rare for women to achieve -- wide popularity and a comfortable living -- while her work was denigrated because it seemed too feminine!

Woman to Man by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox weighed in on the question of woman's proper relationship to man with a poem in Poems of Power, "Woman to Man." In this response to a critique of the women's rights movement, she uses her sly wit to ask poetically: whose fault is the movement to change women's roles? Her answer is very much in keeping with the culture of America as the twentieth century opened.


Ella Wheeler Wilcox: Poems of Power, 1901

"Woman is man's enemy, rival and competitor."
You do but jest, sir, and you jest not well,
How could the hand be enemy of the arm,
Or seed and sod be rivals! How could light
Feel jealousy of heat, plant of the leaf
Or competition dwell 'twixt lip and smile?
Are we not part and parcel of yourselves?
Like strands in one great braid we intertwine
And make the perfect whole. You could not be,
Unless we gave you birth; we are the soil
From which you sprang, yet sterile were that soil
Save as you planted. (Though in the Book we read
One woman bore a child with no man's aid
We find no record of a man-child born
Without the aid of woman! Fatherhood
Is but a small achievement at the best
While motherhood comprises heaven and hell.)
This ever-growing argument of sex
Is most unseemly, and devoid of sense.
Why waste more time in controversy, when
There is not time enough for all of love,
Our rightful occupation in this life.
Why prate of our defects, of where we fail
When just the story of our worth would need
Eternity for telling, and our best
Development comes ever thro' your praise,
As through our praise you reach your highest self.
Oh! had you not been miser of your praise
And let our virtues be their own reward
The old established, order of the world
Would never have been changed. Small blame is ours
For this unsexing of ourselves, and worse
Effeminizing of the male. We were
Content, sir, till you starved us, heart and brain.
All we have done, or wise, or otherwise
Traced to the root, was done for love of you.
Let us taboo all vain comparisons,
And go forth as God meant us, hand in hand,
Companions, mates and comrades evermore;
Two parts of one divinely ordained whole.

Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

While Ella Wheeler Wilcox largely precedes the positive thinking movement in America, she definitely emphasized that the world would rather follow someone who is positive -- the world has enough pain already.


LAUGH, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow it's mirth,
But has trouble enough of it's 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 nectared 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 long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

'Tis the Set of the Sail -- or -- One Ship Sails East

One of the best known of Ella Wheeler Wilcox's poems, this one is about the relationship of human choice to human destiny.

'Tis the Set of the Sail -- or -- One Ship Sails East

But to every mind there openeth,
A way, and way, and away,
A high soul climbs the highway,
And the low soul gropes the low,
And in between on the misty flats,
The rest drift to and fro.
But to every man there openeth,
A high way and a low,
And every mind decideth,
The way his soul shall go.
One ship sails East,
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
'Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales,
That tells the way we go.
Like the winds of the sea
Are the waves of time,
As we journey along through life,
'Tis the set of the soul,
That determines the goal,
And not the calm or the strife.

The World's Need by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

What is religion really about?  One can guess from this poem that Ella Wheeler Wilcox thought that it was about how one behaves, and that most of the religious arguments are far less important than our actions.

The World's Need

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind,
Is all the sad world needs.

The Undiscovered Country by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Was the film in the Star Trek canon named from this poem?  Read it -- and I think you'll see that it was.  At a time in history when exploring outwardly to new lands seemed to be over, Ella Wheeler Wilcox asserted that there was still a journey of exploration every person can take.

The Undiscovered Country

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

MAN has explored all countries and all lands,
And made his own the secrets of each clime.
Now, ere the world has fully reached its prime,
The oval earth lies compassed with steel bands;
The seas are slaves to ships that touch all strands,
And even the haughty elements sublime
And bold, yield him their secrets for all time,
And speed like lackeys forth at his commands.

Still, though he search from shore to distant shore,
And no strange realms, no unlocated plains
Are left for his attainment and control,
Yet is there one more kingdom to explore.
Go, know thyself, O man! there yet remains
The undiscovered country of thy soul!

Will by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

A regular theme of Wilcox is the role of human will versus the role of luck.  This poem continues that theme.


From: Poetical Works of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 1917

There is no chance, no destiny, no fate,
Can circumvent or hinder or control
The firm resolve of a determined soul.
Gifts count for nothing; will alone is great;
All things give way before it, soon or late.
What obstacle can stay the mighty force
Of the sea-seeking river in its course,
Or cause the ascending orb of day to wait?
Each well-born soul must win what it deserves.
Let the fool prate of luck. The fortunate
Is he whose earnest purpose never swerves,
Whose slightest action or inaction serves
The one great aim. Why, even Death stands still,
And waits an hour sometimes for such a will.

Which Are You? by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox writes about "leaners" and "lifters" -- which she sees as a more important difference between people than good/bad, rich/poor, humble/proud, or happy/sad. It's another poem emphasizing personal effort and responsibility.

Which Are You?

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

THERE are two kinds of people on earth to-day;
Just two kinds of people, no more, I say.

Not the sinner and saint, for it's well understood,
The good are half bad, and the bad are half good.

Not the rich and the poor, for to rate a man's wealth,
You must first know the state of his conscience and health.

Not the humble and proud, for in life's little span,
Who puts on vain airs, is not counted a man.

Not the happy and sad, for the swift flying years
Bring each man his laughter and each man his tears.

No; the two kinds of people on earth I mean,
Are the people who lift, and the people who lean.

Wherever you go, you will find the earth's masses,
Are always divided in just these two classes.

And oddly enough, you will find too, I ween,
There's only one lifter to twenty who lean.

In which class are you? Are you easing the load,
Of overtaxed lifters, who toil down the road?

Or are you a leaner, who lets others share
Your portion of labor, and worry and care?

Wishing by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox on the way to make the world better and wiser and happy: your own actions and thoughts contribute to how the world turns out.  She didn't say "wishing won't make it so" but that's basically her message.


From: Poems of Power, 1901

Do you wish the world were better?
Let me tell you what to do.
Set a watch upon your actions,
Keep them always straight and true.
Rid your mind of selfish motives,
Let your thoughts be clean and high.
You can make a little Eden
Of the sphere you occupy.

Do you wish the world were wiser?
Well, suppose you make a start,
By accumulating wisdom
In the scrapbook of your heart;
Do not waste one page on folly;
Live to learn, and learn to live
If you want to give men knowledge
You must get, ere you give.

Do you wish the world were happy?
Then remember day by day
Just to scatter seeds of kindness
As you pass along the way,
For the pleasures of the many
May be ofttimes traced to one,
As the hand that plants an acorn
Shelters armies from the sun.

Life's Harmonies by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

While she often encouraged a positive outlook, in this poem, Ella Wheeler Wilcox also makes quite clear that life's troubles also help us to understand the richness of life.

Life's Harmonies

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

LET no man pray that he know not sorrow,
Let no soul ask to be free from pain,
For the gall of to-day is the sweet of to-morrow,
And the moment's loss is the lifetime's gain.

Through want of a thing does its worth redouble,
Through hunger's pangs does the feast content,
And only the heart that has harbored trouble,
Can fully rejoice when joy is sent.

Let no man shrink from the bitter tonics
Of grief, and yearning, and need, and strife,
For the rarest chords in the soul's harmonies,
Are found in the minor strains of life.

To Marry or Not to Marry? A Girl's Reverie

The culture of the early 20th century was changing how women thought about marriage, and different views of that are summarized in this "conversation" poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Sentimental as she usually was, you'll see where Wilcox concludes the decision-making process.

To Marry or Not to Marry?A Girl's Reverie

From: Poetical Works of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 1917

Mother says, "Be in no hurry,
Marriage oft means care and worry."

Auntie says, with manner grave,
"Wife is synonym for slave."

Father asks, in tones commanding,
"How does Bradstreet rate his standing?"

Sister, crooning to her twins,
Sighs, "With marriage care begins."

Grandma, near life's closing days,
Murmurs, "Sweet are girlhood's ways."

Maud, twice widowed ("sod and grass")
Looks at me and moans "Alas!"

They are six, and I am one,
Life for me has just begun.

They are older, calmer, wiser:
Age should aye be youth's adviser.

They must know---and yet, dear me,
When in Harry's eyes I see

All the world of love there burning---
On my six advisers turning,

I make answer, "Oh, but Harry,
Is not like most men who marry.

"Fate has offered me a prize,
Life with love means Paradise.

"Life without it is not worth
All the foolish joys of earth."

So, in spite of all they say,
I shall name the wedding-day.

I Am by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox in a recurring theme emphasizes the role of choice in one's life contributing to the kind of life one leads -- and how one person's choice affects the lives of others as well.

I Am

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

I KNOW not whence I came,
I know not whither I go
But the fact stands clear that I am here
In this world of pleasure and woe.
And out of the mist and murk,
Another truth shines plain.
It is in my power each day and hour
To add to its joy or its pain.

I know that the earth exists,
It is none of my business why.
I cannot find out what it's all about,
I would but waste time to try.
My life is a brief, brief thing,
I am here for a little space.
And while I stay I would like, if I may,
To brighten and better the place.

The trouble, I think, with us all
Is the lack of a high conceit.
If each man thought he was sent to this spot
To make it a bit more sweet,
How soon we could gladden the world,
How easily right all wrong.
If nobody shirked, and each one worked
To help his fellows along.

Cease wondering why you came--
Stop looking for faults and flaws.
Rise up to day in your pride and say,
"I am part of the First Great Cause!
However full the world
There is room for an earnest man.
It had need of me or I would not be,
I am here to strengthen the plan."

Who Is a Christian? by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

In a time when to "be a Christian" also implied "be a good person," Ella Wheeler Wilcox expresses her views on what is really Christian behavior and who is a Christian. Implicit in this are her New Thought religious ideals and a critique of much of what religion was in her day. Reflected in this is also a religious tolerance, while still subtly asserting Christianity's centrality.

Who Is a Christian?

From: Poems of Progress and New Thought Pastels, 1911

Who is a Christian in this Christian land
Of many churches and of lofty spires?
Not he who sits in soft upholstered pews
Bought by the profits of unholy greed,
And looks devotion, while he thinks of gain.
Not he who sends petitions from the lips
That lie to-morrow in the street and mart.
Not he who fattens on another's toil,
And flings his unearned riches to the poor,
Or aids the heathen with a lessened wage,
And builds cathedrals with an increased rent.

Christ, with Thy great, sweet, simple creed of love,
How must Thou weary of Earth's 'Christian' clans,
Who preach salvation through Thy saving blood
While planning slaughter of their fellow men.

Who is a Christian? It is one whose life
Is built on love, on kindness and on faith;
Who holds his brother as his other self;
Who toils for justice, equity and PEACE,
And hides no aim or purpose in his heart
That will not chord with universal good.

Though he be pagan, heretic or Jew,
That man is Christian and beloved of Christ.

Christmas Fancies by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The sentimental religious ideas of Ella Wheeler Wilcox come through in this poem reflecting on the very human values of the Christmas season. 


WHEN Christmas bells are swinging above the fields of snow,
We hear sweet voices ringing from lands of long ago,
And etched on vacant places
Are half forgotten faces
Of friends we used to cherish, and loves we used to know --
When Christmas bells are swinging above the fields of snow.

Uprising from the ocean of the present surging near,
We see, with strange emotion that is not free from fear,
That continent Elysian
Long vanished from our vision,
Youth's lovely lost Atlantis, so mourned for and so dear,
Uprising from the ocean of the present surging near.

When gloomy gray Decembers are roused to Christmas mirth,
The dullest life remembers there once was joy on earth,
And draws from youth's recesses
Some memory it possesses,
And, gazing through the lens of time, exaggerates its worth,
When gloomy gray December is roused to Christmas mirth.

When hanging up the holly or mistletoe, I wis
Each heart recalls some folly that lit the world with bliss.
Not all the seers and sages
With wisdom of the ages
Can give the mind such pleasure as memories of that kiss
When hanging up the holly or mistletoe, I wis.

For life was made for loving, and love alone repays,
As passing years are proving, for all of Time's sad ways.
There lies a sting in pleasure,
And fame gives shallow measure,
And wealth is but a phantom that mocks the restless days,
For life was made for loving, and only loving pays.

When Christmas bells are pelting the air with silver chimes,
And silences are melting to soft, melodious rhymes,
Let Love, the world's beginning,
End fear and hate and sinning;
Let Love, the God Eternal, be worshiped in all climes
When Christmas bells are pelting the air with silver chimes.

The Wish by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Another Ella Wheeler Wilcox poem. From her New Thought religious ideas comes this acceptance of all that has happened in her life, and seeing the errors and woes as lessons to be learned.

The Wish

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

SHOULD some great angel say to me tomorrow,
"Thou must re-tread thy pathway from the start,
But God will grant, in pity, for thy sorrow,
Some one dear wish, the nearest to thy heart.'

This were my wish! from my life's dim beginning
Let be what has been! wisdom planned the whole;
My want, my woe, my errors, and my sinning,
All, all were needed lessons for my soul.

Life by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

 Another of Ella Wheeler Wilcox's poetic reflections on the value in making errors and learning from them.


From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

ALL in the dark we grope along,
And if we go amiss
We learn at least which path is wrong,
And there is gain in this.

We do not always win the race,
By only running right,
We have to tread the mountain's base
Before we reach its height.

The Christs alone no errors made;
So often had they trod
The paths that lead through light and shade,
They had become as God.

As Krishna, Buddha, Christ again,
They passed along the way,
And left those mighty truths which men
But dimly grasp to-day.

But he who loves himself the last
And knows the use of pain,
Though strewn with errors all his past,
He surely shall attain.

Some souls there are that needs must taste
Of wrong, ere choosing right;
We should not call those years a waste
Which led us to the light.

Song of America by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox in this poem gives her sense of what patriotism really means. It's rather a romantic view of the Pilgrims and their contribution to American life, but it also acknowledges the "errors" or sins of American history, including enslavement. The poem repeats several common themes by Wilcox, valuing the hard work that makes a difference in what kind of world is created, and valuing lessons learned even from tragic errors.

Song of America

Read at Madison, Wis., on the Two Hundred and Fifty-Fifth Anniversary of the Pilgrim Landing

And now, when poets are singing
Their songs of olden days,
And now, when the land is ringing
With sweet Centennial lays,
My muse goes wandering backward,
To the groundwork of all these,
To the time when our Pilgrim Fathers
Came over the winter seas.

The sons of a mighty kingdom,
Of a cultured folk were they;
Born amidst pomp and splendor,
Bred in it day by day.
Children of bloom and beauty,
Reared under skies serene,
Where the daisy and hawthorne blossomed,
And the ivy was always green.

And yet, for the sake of freedom,
For a free religious faith,
They turned from home and people,
And stood face to face with death.
They turned from a tyrant ruler,
And stood on the new world's shore,
With a waste of waters behind them,
And a waste of land before.

O, men of a great Republic;
Of a land of untold worth;
Of a nation that has no equal
Upon God's round green earth:
I hear you sighing and crying
Of the hard, close times at hand;
What think you of those old heroes,
On the rock 'twixt sea and land?

The bells of a million churches
Go ringing out to-night,
And the glitter of palace windows
Fills all the land with light;
And there is the home and college,
And here is the feast and ball,
And the angels of peace and freedom
Are hovering over all.

They had no church, no college,
No banks, no mining stock;
They had but the waste before them,
The sea, and Plymouth Rock.
But there in the night and tempest,
With gloom on every hand,
They laid the first foundation
Of a nation great and grand.

There were no weak repinings,
No shrinking from what might be,
But with their brows to the tempest,
And with their backs to the sea,
They planned out a noble future,
And planted the corner stone
Of the grandest, greatest republic,
The world has ever known.

O women in homes of splendor,
O lily-buds frail and fair,
With fortunes upon your fingers,
And milk-white pearls in your hair:
I hear you longing and sighing
For some new, fresh delight;
But what of those Pilgrim mothers
On that December night?

I hear you talking of hardships,
I hear you moaning of loss;
Each has her fancied sorrow,
Each bears her self-made cross.
But they, they had only their husbands,
The rain, the rock, and the sea,
Yet, they looked up to God and blessed Him,
And were glad because they were free.

O grand old Pilgrim heroes,
O souls that were tried and true,
With all of our proud possessions
We are humbled at thought of you:
Men of such might and muscle,
Women so brave and strong,
Whose faith was fixed as the mountain,
Through a night so dark and long.

We know of your grim, grave errors,
As husbands and as wives;
Of the rigid bleak ideas
That starved your daily lives;
Of pent-up, curbed emotions,
Of feelings crushed, suppressed,
That God with the heart created
In every human breast;

We know of that little remnant
Of British tyranny,
When you hunted Quakers and witches,
And swumg them from a tree;
Yet back to a holy motive,
To live in the fear of God,
To a purpose, high, exalted,
To walk where martyrs trod,

We can trace your gravest errors;
Your aim was fixed and sure,
And e'en if your acts were fanatic,
We know your hearts were pure.
You lived so near to heaven,
You over-reached your trust,
And deemed yourselves creators,
Forgetting you were but dust.

But we with our broader visions,
With our wider realm of thought,
I often think would be better
If we lived as our fathers taught.
Their lives seemed bleak and rigid,
Narrow, and void of bloom;
Our minds have too much freedom,
And conscience too much room.

They over-reached in duty,
They starved their hearts for the right;
We live too much in the senses,
We bask too long in the light.
They proved by their clinging to Him
The image of God in man;
And we, by our love of license,
Strengthen a Darwin's plan.

But bigotry reached its limit,
And license must have its sway,
And both shall result in profit
To those of a latter day.
With the fetters of slavery broken,
And freedom's flag unfurled,
Our nation strides onward and upward,
And stands the peer of the world.

Spires and domes and steeples,
Glitter from shore to shore;
The waters are white with commerce,
The earth is studded with ore;
Peace is sitting above us,
And Plenty with laden hand,
Wedded to sturdy Labor,
Goes singing through the land.

Then let each child of the nation,
Who glories in being free,
Remember the Pilgrim Fathers
Who stood on the rock by the sea;
For there in the rain and tempest
Of a night long passed away,
They sowed the seeds of a harvest
We gather in sheaves to-day.


In this poem, which alludes to slavery, wealth inequality, child labor, and other oppressions, Wilcox is angrier about what is wrong with the world, and more assertive about the responsibility to protest what is wrong. 


From  Poems of Problems, 1914.

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.
Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

Ambition's Trail by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, in this poem, explains that ambition and striving -- something she values in many of her poems -- is not good for its own sake, but for the strength it gives to others.

Ambition's Trail

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

IF all the end of this continuous striving
Were simply to attain,
How poor would seem the planning and contriving
The endless urging and the hurried driving
Of body, heart and brain!

But ever in the wake of true achieving,
There shines this glowing trail--
Some other soul will be spurred on, conceiving,
New strength and hope, in its own power believing,
Because thou didst not fail.

Not thine alone the glory, nor the sorrow,
If thou doth miss the goal,
Undreamed of lives in many a far to-morrow
From thee their weakness or their force shall borrow--
On, on, ambitious soul.

The Meeting of the Centuries by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

When the nineteenth century was ending and the twentieth century about to begin, Ella Wheeler Wilcox distilled her sense of despair at the way people often treated one another, and her hope that people could change, into a poem she called "The Meeting of the Centuries." Here's the whole poem, as published in 1901 as the opening poem in her collection, Poems of Power.


Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Poems of Power, 1901

A CURIOUS vision, on mine eyes unfurled
In the deep night. I saw, or seemed to see,
Two Centuries meet, and sit down vis-a-vis,
Across the great round table of the world.
One with suggested sorrows in his mien
And on his brow the furrowed lines of thought.
And one whose glad expectant presence brought
A glow and radiance from the realms unseen.

Hand clasped with hand, in silence for a space,
The Centuries sat; the sad old eyes of one
(As grave paternal eyes regard a son)
Gazing upon that other eager face.
And then a voice, as cadenceless and gray
As the sea's monody in winter time,
Mingled with tones melodious, as the chime
Of bird choirs, singing in the dawns of May.


By you, Hope stands. With me, Experience walks.
Like a fair jewel in a faded box,
In my tear-rusted heart, sweet pity lies.
For all the dreams that look forth from your eyes,
And those bright-hued ambitions, which I know
Must fall like leaves and perish in Time's snow,
(Even as my soul's garden stands bereft,)
I give you pity! 'tis the one gift left.


Nay, nay, good friend! not pity, but Godspeed,
Here in the morning of my life I need.
Counsel, and not condolence; smiles, not tears,
To guide me through the channels of the years.
Oh, I am blinded by the blaze of light
That shines upon me from the Infinite.
Blurred is my vision by the close approach
To unseen shores, whereon the times encroach.


Illusion, all illusion. List and hear
The Godless cannons, booming far and near.
Flaunting the flag of Unbelief, with Greed
For pilot, lo! the pirate age in speed
Bears on to ruin. War's most hideous crimes
Besmirch the record of these modern times.
Degenerate is the world I leave to you, --
My happiest speech to earth will be -- adieu.


You speak as one too weary to be just.
I hear the guns-I see the greed and lust.
The death throes of a giant evil fill
The air with riot and confusion. Ill
Ofttimes makes fallow ground for Good; and Wrong
Builds Right's foundation, when it grows too strong.
Pregnant with promise is the hour, and grand
The trust you leave in my all-willing hand.


As one who throws a flickering taper's ray
To light departing feet, my shadowed way
You brighten with your faith. Faith makes the man.
Alas, that my poor foolish age outran
Its early trust in God. The death of art
And progress follows, when the world's hard heart
Casts out religion. 'Tis the human brain
Men worship now, and heaven, to them, means gain.


Faith is not dead, tho' priest and creed may pass,
For thought has leavened the whole unthinking mass.
And man looks now to find the God within.
We shall talk more of love, and less of sin,
In this new era. We are drawing near
Unatlassed boundaries of a larger sphere.
With awe, I wait, till Science leads us on,
Into the full effulgence of its dawn.

Here and Now by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

In a theme that would become much more common later in American culture, Ella Wheeler Wilcox emphasizes the (theistic) humanist value of living in the present -- and not just experiencing, but "on this side of the grave" laboring and loving.

Here and Now

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

HERE, in the heart of the world,
Here, in the noise and the din,
Here, where our spirits were hurled
To battle with sorrow and sin,
This is the place and the spot
For knowledge of infinite things;
This is the kingdom where Thought
Can conquer the prowess of kings.

Wait for no heavenly life,
Seek for no temple alone;
Here, in the midst of the strife,
Know what the sages have known.
See what the Perfect Ones saw--
God in the depth of each soul,
God as the light and the law,
God as beginning and goal.

Earth is one chamber of Heaven,
Death is no grander than birth.
Joy in the life that was given,
Strive for perfection on earth.

Here, in the turmoil and roar,
Show what it is to be calm;
Show how the spirit can soar
And bring back its healing and balm.

Stand not aloof nor apart,
Plunge in the thick of the fight.
There in the street and the mart,
That is the place to do right.
Not in some cloister or cave,
Not in some kingdom above,
Here, on this side of the grave,
Here, should we labor and love.

If Christ Came Questioning by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

In this poem, Ella Wheeler Wilcox brings her New Thought Christianity to the center. What would the Christ she believed in be asking of us?

If Christ Came Questioning

Ella Wheeler Wilcox
From: Poems of Experience, 1910

 If Christ came questioning His world to-day,
(If Christ came questioning,)
'What hast thou done to glorify thy God,
Since last My feet this lower earth plane trod?'
How could I answer Him; and in what way
One evidence of my allegiance bring;
If Christ came questioning.
If Christ came questioning, to me alone,
(If Christ came questioning,)
I could not point to any church or shrine
And say, 'I helped build up this house of Thine;
Behold the altar, and the corner stone';
I could not show one proof of such a thing;
If Christ came questioning.
If Christ came questioning, on His demand,
(If Christ came questioning,)
No pagan soul converted to His creed
Could I proclaim; or say, that word or deed
Of mine, had spread the faith in any land;
Or sent it forth, to fly on stronger wing;
If Christ came questioning.
If Christ came questioning the soul of me,
(If Christ came questioning,)
I could but answer, 'Lord, my little part
Has been to beat the metal of my heart,
Into the shape I thought most fit for Thee;
And at Thy feet, to cast the offering;
Shouldst Thou come questioning.
'From out the earth-fed furnaces of desire,
(Ere Thou cam'st questioning,)
This formless and unfinished gift I brought,
And on life's anvil flung it down, white hot:
A glowing thing, of selfishness and fire,
With blow on blow, I made the anvil ring;
(Ere Thou cam'st questioning).
'The hammer, Self-Control, beat hard on it;
(Ere Thou cam'st questioning,)
And with each blow, rose fiery sparks of pain;
I bear their scars, on body, soul, and brain.
Long, long I toiled; and yet, dear Lord, unfit,
And all unworthy, is the heart I bring,
To meet Thy questioning.'

The Question by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

An earlier poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox also focused on what question is relevant to how you lived your life.  What is the purpose of life? What is our calling?

The Question

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

BESIDE us in our seeking after pleasures,
Through all our restless striving after fame,
Through all our search for worldly gains and treasures,
There walketh one whom no man likes to name.
Silent he follows, veiled of form and feature,
Indifferent if we sorrow or rejoice,
Yet that day comes when every living creature
Must look upon his face and hear his voice.

When that day comes to you, and Death, unmasking,
Shall bar your path, and say, "Behold the end,"
What are the questions that he will be asking
About your past? Have you considered, friend?
I think he will not chide you for your sinning,
Nor for your creeds or dogmas will he care;
He will but ask, "From your life's first beginning
How many burdens have you helped to bear?"

Unconquered by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

This Ella Wheeler Wilcox poem puts front and center the value of individuality, individualism and human will.


From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

HOWEVER skilled and strong art thou, my foe,
However fierce is thy relentless hate
Though firm thy hand, and strong thy aim, and straight
Thy poisoned arrow leaves the bended bow,
To pierce the target of my heart, ah! know
I am the master yet of my own fate.
Thou canst not rob me of my best estate,
Though fortune, fame and friends, yea love shall go.

Not to the dust shall my true self be hurled;
Nor shall I meet thy worst assaults dismayed.
When all things in the balance are well weighed,
There is but one great .danger in the world--
Thou canst not force my soul to wish thee ill,
That is the only evil that can kill.

The Creed to Be by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The idea of a "Christ within" or a divinity within every person -- and the value of this over traditional teachings -- is expressed in this Ella Wheeler Wilcox poem. What could religion become?

The Creed to Be

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

OUR thoughts are molding unmade spheres,
And, like a blessing or a curse,
They thunder down the formless years,
And ring throughout the universe.

We build our futures, by the shape
Of our desires, and not by acts.
There is no pathway of escape;
No priest-made creeds can alter facts.

Salvation is not begged or bought;
Too long this selfish hope sufficed;
Too long man reeked with lawless thought,
And leaned upon a tortured Christ.

Like shriveled leaves, these worn out creeds
Are dropping from Religion's tree;
The world begins to know its needs,
And souls are crying to be free.

Free from the load of fear and grief,
Man fashioned in an ignorant age;
Free from the ache of unbelief
He fled to in rebellious rage.

No church can bind him to the things
That fed the first crude souls, evolved;
For, mounting up on daring wings,
He questions mysteries all unsolved.

Above the chant of priests, above
The blatant voice of braying doubt,
He hears the still, small voice of Love,
Which sends its simple message out.

And clearer, sweeter, day by day,
Its mandate echoes from the skies,
"Go roll the stone of self away,
And let the Christ within thee rise.'

Wishing -- or Fate and I by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, in a common theme in her poems, expresses her view that Fate is not stronger than the human will.

Wishing -- or Fate and I

From: Poems of Power, 1901

Wise men tell me thou, O Fate,
Art invincible and great.

Well, I own thy prowess; still
Dare I flount thee, with my will.

Thou canst shatter in a span
All the earthly pride of man.

Outward things thou canst control
But stand back - I rule my soul!

Death? 'Tis such a little thing -
Scarcely worth the mentioning.

What has death to do with me,
Save to set my spirit free?

Something in me dwells, O Fate,
That can rise and dominate.

Loss, and sorrow, and disaster,
How, then, Fate, art thou my master?

In the great primeval morn
My immortal will was born.

Part of the stupendous Cause
Which conceived the Solar Laws.

Lit the suns and filled the seas,
Royalest of pedigrees.

That great Cause was Love, the Source,
Who most loves has most of Force.

He who harbors hate one hour
Saps the soul of Peace and Power.

He who will not hate his foe
Need not dread life's hardest blow.

In the realm of brotherhood
Wishing no man aught but good.

Naught but good can come to me.
This is love's supreme decree.

Since I bar my door to hate,
What have I to fear, O Fate?

Since I fear not - Fate, I vow,
I the ruler am, not thou!

Contrasts by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The spiritual value of service, and of meeting human needs in the here and now, are expressed in this Ella Wheeler Wilcox poem. 


I SEE the tall church steeples,
They reach so far, so far,
But the eyes of my heart see the world's great mart,
Where the starving people are.
I hear the church bells ringing
Their chimes on the morning air;
But my soul's sad ear is hurt to hear
The poor man's cry of despair.
Thicker and thicker the churches,
Nearer and nearer the sky--
But alack for their creeds while the poor man's needs
Grow deeper as years roll by.

If by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox returns to a theme she often addresses: the role of choice and the role of action over beliefs and wishful thinking, in being a good person.


From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

TWIXT what thou art, and what thou wouldst be, let
No "If" arise on which to lay the blame.
Man makes a mountain of that puny word,
But, like a blade of grass before the scythe,
It falls and withers when a human will,
Stirred by creative force, sweeps toward its aim.

Thou wilt be what thou couldst be. Circumstance
Is but the toy of genius. When a soul
Burns with a god-like purpose to achieve,
All obstacles between it and its goal--
Must vanish as the dew before the sun.

"If" is the motto of the dilettante
And idle dreamer; 'tis the poor excuse
Of mediocrity. The truly great
Know not the word, or know it but to scorn,
Else had Joan of Arc a peasant died,
Uncrowned by glory and by men unsung.

Preaching vs. Practice by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

 "Practice what you preach" is a long-time cry of the practical religionist, and Ella Wheeler Wilcox draws out that theme in this poem.

Preaching vs. Practice

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

IT is easy to sit in the sunshine
And talk to the man in the shade;
It is easy to float in a well-trimmed boat,
And point out the places to wade.

But once we pass into the shadows,
We murmur and fret and frown,
And, our length from the bank, we shout for a plank,
Or throw up our hands and go down.

It is easy to sit in your carriage,
And counsel the man on foot,
But get down and walk, and you'll change your talk,
As you feel the peg in your boot.

It is easy to tell the toiler
How best he can carry his pack,
But no one can rate a burden's weight
Until it has been on his back.

The up-curled mouth of pleasure,
Can prate of sorrow's worth,
But give it a sip, and a wryer lip,
Was never made on earth.

Does It Pay by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

What makes life worth living? Is there a purpose to life? In a poem which resonates with some thoughts from Emily Dickinson, Ella Wheeler Wilcox expresses her view on whether action pays off.

Does It Pay

From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

IF one poor burdened toiler o'er life's road,
Who meets us by the way,
Goes on less conscious of his galling load,
Then life indeed, does pay.

If we can show one troubled heart the gain,
That lies alway in loss,
Why, then, we too, are paid for all the pain
Of bearing life's hard cross.

If some despondent soul to hope is stirred,
Some sad lip made to smile,
By any act of ours, or any word,
Then, life has been worth while.

Good-by to the Cradle by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox expresses in metaphor the sense of Progress that was strong in a culture and in her New Thought religious environment that fostered progressivism in religion and politics and a sense that humankind would always be changing.

Good-by to the Cradle

From: The Century, a popular quarterly, 1893

GOOD-BY to the cradle, the dear wooden cradle,
The rude hand of Progress has thrust it aside:
No more to its motion, o'er Sleep's fairy ocean,
Our play-weary wayfarers peacefully glide;
No more by the rhythm of slow-moving rocker
Their sweet, dreamy fancies are fostered and fed;
No more to low singing the cradle goes swinging--
The child of this era is put into bed!

Good-by to the cradle, the dear wooden cradle,--
It lent to the twilight a mystical charm:
When bees left the clover, when playtime was over,
How safe seemed this shelter from danger and harm;
How soft seemed the pillow, how distant the ceiling,
How weird were the voices that whispered around;
What dreams would come flocking as, rocking and rocking,
We floated away into slumber profound.

Good-by to the cradle, the old wooden cradle,
The babe of the day does not know it by sight;
When day leaves the border, with system and order
The child goes to bed, and we put out the light.
I bow to Progression; and ask no concession,
Though strewn be her pathway with wrecks of the Past.
So off with old lumber, that sweet ark of slumber,
The dear wooden cradle, is ruthlessly cast.

High Noon by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Looking back and looking forward: Ella Wheeler Wilcox on the moment in time to live with. She expresses her sense of the centrality to ethics, "to toil for universal good." Other common themes: action, free will, and learning from errors and mistakes.

High Noon

Custer and Other Poems, 1896

TIME'S finger on the dial of my life
Points to high noon! and yet the half-spent day
Leaves less than half remaining, for the dark,
Bleak shadows of the grave engulf the end.
To those who burn the candle to the stick,
The sputtering socket yields but little light.
Long life is sadder than an early death.
We cannot count on raveled threads of age
Whereof to weave a fabric. We must use
The warp and woof the ready present yields
And toil while daylight lasts. When I bethink
How brief the past, the future still more brief,
Calls on to action, action! Not for me
Is time for retrospection or for dreams,
Not time for self-laudation or remorse.
Have I done nobly? Then I must not let
Dead yesterday unborn to-morrow shame.
Have I done wrong? Well, let the bitter taste
Of fruit that turned to ashes on my lip
Be my reminder in temptation's hour,
And keep me silent when I would condemn.
Sometimes it takes the acid of a sin
To cleanse the clouded windows of our souls
So pity may shine through them.

Looking back,
My faults and errors seem like stepping-stones
That led the way to knowledge of the truth
And made me value virtue; sorrows shine
In rainbow colors o'er the gulf of years,
Where lie forgotten pleasures.

Looking forth,
Out to the westers sky still bright with noon,
I feel well spurred and booted for the strife
That ends not till Nirvana is attained.
Battling with fate, with men and with myself,
Up the steep summit of my life's forenoon,
Three things I learned, three things of precious worth
To guide and help me down the western slope.
I have learned how to pray, and toil, and save.
To pray for courage to receive what comes,
Knowing what comes to be divinely sent.
To toil for universal good, since thus
And only thus can good come unto me.
To save, by giving whatsoe'er I have
To those who have not, this alone is gain.

In Reply to a Query by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox was committed to the temperance movement in her day, and expresses her reasons in this poem.

In Reply to a Query 

From: Drops of Water, 1872

Where are the temperance people?
Well, scattered here and there:
Some gathering in their produce
To show at the autumn fair;
Some threshing wheat for market,
And others threshing rye,
That will go to the fat distiller
For whiskey by-and-by.

And some are selling their hop crops
At a first-rate price, this year,
And the seller pockets the money,
While the drunkard swallows the beer.
And some "staunch temperance workers"(?)
Who'd do anything for the cause,
Save to give it a dime or a moment,
Or work for temperance laws,

May be seen from now to election,
Near any tavern stand
Where liquor flows in plenty,
With a voter on either hand.
And these temperance office-seekers
That we hear of far and near
Are the ones who furnish the money
That buys the lager-beer.

But these are only the black sheep
Who want the temperance name
Without living up to the precepts,
And so bring themselves to shame.
And the true, brave temperance people,
Who have the cause at heart,
Are doing the work that's nearest,
Each his allotted part:

Some lifting the fallen drunkard,
Some preaching unto men,
Some aiding the cause with money,
And others with the pen.
Each has a different mission,
Each works in a different way,
But their works shall melt together
In one grand result, some day.

And one, our chief (God bless him),
Is working day and night:
With his sword of burning eloquence,
He is fighting the noble fight.
Whether in lodge or convention,
Whether at home or abroad,
He is reaping a golden harvest
To lay at the feet of God.

Where are the temperance people?
All scattered here and there,
Sowing the seeds of righteous deeds,
That the harvest may be fair.

Preparation by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

While Ella Wheeler Wilcox valued the role of personal will and choice over fate, she also asserted the value of life as it is. This poem expresses more of the latter value than the former.


From: Custer and Other Poems, 1896

WE must not force events, but rather make
The heart soil ready for their coming, as
The earth spreads carpets for the feet of Spring,
Or, with the strengthening tonic of the frost,
Prepares for Winter. Should a July noon
Burst suddenly upon a frozen world
Small joy would follow, even tho' that world
Were longing for the Summer. Should the sting
Of sharp December pierce the heart of June,
What death and devastation would ensue!
All things are planned. The most majestic sphere
That whirls through space is governed and controlled
By supreme law, as is the blade of grass
Which through the bursting bosom of the earth
Creeps up to kiss the light. Poor puny man
Alone doth strive and battle with the Force
Which rules all lives and worlds, and he alone
Demands effect before producing cause.

How vain the hope! We cannot harvest joy
Until we sow the seed, and God alone
Knows when that seed has ripened. Oft we stand
And watch the ground with anxious brooding eyes
Complaining of the slow unfruitful yield,
Not knowing that the shadow of ourselves
Keeps off the sunlight and delays result.
Sometimes our fierce impatience of desire
Doth like a sultry May force tender shoots
Of half-formed pleasures and unshaped events
To ripen prematurely, and we reap
But disappointment; or we rot the germs
With briny tears ere they have time to grow.
While stars are born and mighty planets die
And hissing comets scorch the brow of space
The Universe keeps its eternal calm.
Through patient preparation, year on year,
The earth endures the travail of the Spring
And Winter's desolation. So our souls
In grand submission to a higher law
Should move serene through all the ills of life,
Believing them masked joys.

Midsummer by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox uses the very hot midsummer as a metaphor for some times in our lives.


After the May time and after the June time
Rare with blossoms and perfume sweet,
Cometh the round world's royal noon time,
The red midsummer of blazing heat,
When the sun, like an eye that never closes,
Bends on the earth its fervid gaze,
And the winds are still, and the crimson roses
Droop and wither and die in its rays.

Unto my heart has come this season,
O, my lady, my worshiped one,
When, over the stars of Pride and Reason,
Sails Love's cloudless, noonday sun.
Like a great red ball in my bosom burning
With fires that nothing can quench or tame,
It glows till my heart itself seems turning
Into a liquid lake of flame.

The hopes half shy and the sighs all tender,
The dreams and fears of an earlier day,
Under the noontide's royal splendor,
Droop like roses, and wither away.
From the hills of Doubt no winds are blowing,
From the isles of Pain no breeze is sent, -
Only the sun in a white heat glowing
Over an ocean of great content.

Sink, O my soul, in this golden glory!
Die, O my heart, in thy rapture-swoon!
For the Autumn must come with its mournful story.
And Love's midsummer will fade too soon.

Index to Ella Wheeler Wilcox Poems

These poems are included in this collection:

  1. Ambition's Trail
  2. Christmas Fancies
  3. Contrasts
  4. Creed to Be
  5. Does It Pay
  6. Fate and I
  7. Good-By to the Cradle
  8. Here and Now
  9. High Noon
  10. I Am
  11. If
  12. If Christ Came Questioning
  13. In Reply to a Query
  14. Life
  15. Life's Harmonies
  16. The Meeting of the Centuries
  17. Midsummer
  18. Preaching vs. Practice
  19. Preparation
  20. Protest
  21. The Question
  22. Solitude
  23. Song of America
  24. 'Tis the Set of the Sail or One Ship Sails East
  25. To Marry or Not?
  26. Unconquered
  27. The Undiscovered Country
  28. Where Are the Temperance People?
  29. Which Are You
  30. Who Is a Christian?
  31. Will
  32. Wish
  33. Wishing
  34. Woman to Man
  35. The World's Need