Poetry Sunday: Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Today’s Poetry Sunday features a few selections from the American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Wilcox was born in 1850 in Wisconsin and soon acquired renown as a poet, becoming well-known for her writing by the time she graduated high school. Her poems were resolutely plain and optimistic, and though her simple, sometimes singsong verse was often scorned by critics, during her lifetime she was immensely popular among the public. Among the best-known quotes from her poetry are “Love lights more fires than hate extinguishes” and the well-known line, “Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone” (from “Solitude“). Some of her many published works include Drops of Water (1872 – written in support of the temperance movement), Poems of Passion (1883), Poems of Pleasure (1888), and Poems of Sentiment (1906).

Though no friend of religious orthodoxy, Wilcox was not an atheist – she flirted with spiritualism, Theosophy, New Thought, and other New Age-like beliefs throughout her life, and grew distressingly attached to them after the death of her husband Robert, whom she repeatedly tried to contact from beyond the grave. Nevertheless, I think she deserves to be considered an honorary freethinker on the strength of poems such as “The World’s Need”, reprinted below.

The World’s Need

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.

Protest

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.

From “Here and Now”

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.

From “Settle the Question Right”

However the battle is ended,
Though proudly the victor comes,
With flaunting flags and neighing nags
And echoing roll of drums;
Still truth proclaims this motto
In letters of living light,
No question is ever settled
Until it is settled right.

…Let those who have failed take courage,
Though the enemy seem to have won;
If he be in the wrong, though his ranks are strong,
The battle is not yet done.
For sure as the morning follows
The darkest hour of night,
No question is ever settled
Until it is settled right.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Hooray, another Poetry Sunday! Simple poems with simple truths this time, huh? I like it.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Yes indeed. The Freedom from Religion Foundation’s Dan Barker set that first poem to music, which is how I heard about her. Even though she wasn’t an atheist, I found the sentiments in her poetry too lovely not to give her at least one feature. Often plainspokenness is the best way.


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