Ella Wheeler Wilcox lived from 1850 to 1919. Here, Virginia Woolf reviews The Worlds and I, an autobiographical work by Wilcox. Woolf's review was first published in The Athenaeum, 19th September, 1919.
How can one begin? Where can one leave off? There never was a more difficult book to review. If one puts in the Madame de Stael of Milwaukee, there will be no room for the tea-leaves; if one concentrates upon Helen Pitkin, Raley Husted Bell must be done without. Then all the time there are at least three worlds spinning in and out, and as for Ella Wheeler Wilcox - Mrs Wilcox is indeed the chief problem. It would be easy to make fun of her; equally easy to condescend to her; but it is not at all easy to express what one does feel for her. There is a hint of this complexity in her personal appearance. We write with forty photographs of Mrs Wilcox in front of us. If you omit whose with the cats in her arms and the crescent moons in her hair, those stretched on a couch with a book, and those seated on a balustrade between Theodosia Garrison and Rhoda Hero Dunn, all primarily a tribute to the Muse, there remain a number which represent a plump, personable, determined young woman, vain, extremely vivacious, arch, but at the same time sensible, and always in splendid health. She was never a frump at any stage of her career. Rather than look like a blue-stocking, she would have forsaken literature altogether. She stuck a rod between her arms to keep her back straight; she galloped over the country on an old farm horse; she defied her mother and bathed naked; at the height of her fame 'a new stroke in swimming or a new high dive gave me more of a thrill than a new style of verse, great as my devotion to the Muses was, and ever has been'. In short, if one had the pleasure of meeting Mrs Wilcox, one would find her a very well-dressed, vivacious woman of the world. But alas for the simplicity of the problem! there is not one world but three.
The pre-natal world is indicated rather sketchily. One is given to understand that Mrs Wilcox is appearing for by no means the first time. There have been Ella Wheeler Wilcoxes in Athens and Florence, Rome and Byzantium. She is a recurring, but an improving phenomenon. 'Being an old soul myself,' she says, 'reincarnated many more times than any other of my family, I knew the truth of spiritual things not revealed to them.' One gift, at least, of supreme importance she brought with her from the shades - 'I was born with unquenchable hope... I always expected wonderful things to happen to me.' Without hope, what could she have done? Everything was against her. Her father was an unsuccessful farmer; her mother an embittered woman worn down by a life of child-bearing and hard work; the atmosphere of the home was one of 'discontent and fatigue and irritability'. They lived far out in the country, five miles from a post office, uncomfortably remote even from the dissipations of Milwaukee. Yet Ella Wheeler never lost her belief in an amazing future before her; she was probably never dull for five minutes together. Although acutely aware that her father's taste in hats was distressing, and that the farmhouse walls were without creepers, she had the power within her to transform everything to an object of beauty. The buttercups and daisies of the fields looked to her like rare orchids and hothouse roses. When she was galloping to the post on her farm horse, she expected to be thrown at the feet of a knight, or perhaps the miracle would be reversed and it was into her bosom that the knight would be pitched instead. After a day of domestic drudgery, she would climb a little hill and sit in the sunset and dream. Fame was to come from the East, and love and wealth. (As a matter of fact, she notes, they came from the West.) At any rate something wonderful was bound to happen. 'And I would awaken happy in spite of myself, and put all my previous melancholy into verses - and dollars.' The young woman with the determined mouth never forgot her dollars, and one respects her for saying so. But often Miss Wheeler suggested that in return for what he called her 'heart wails' the editor should send her some object from his prize list - bric-a-brac, tableware, pictures - anything to make the farmhouse more like the house of her dreams. Among the rest came six silver forks, and judge of her emotion! conceive the immeasurable romance of the world! - years later she discovered that the silver forks were made by the firm in which her husband was employed.
But it is time to say something of the poetic gift which brought silver forks from Milwaukee and letters and visits from complete strangers, so that she cannot remember 'any period of my existence when I have not been before the public eye'. She was taught very little; there were odd volumes of Shakespeare, Ouida, and Gauthier scattered about the house, but no complete sets. She did not wish to read, however. Her passion for writing seems to have been a natural instinct - a gift handed down mature from Heaven, and manifesting itself whenever it chose, without much control or direction from Mrs Wilcox herself. Sometimes the Muse would rise to meet an emergency. 'Fetch me a pencil and pad!' she would say, and in the midst of a crowd, to the amazement of the beholders, and to the universal applause, she would dash off precisely the verse required to celebrate the unexpected arrival of General Sherman. Yet sometimes the muse would obstinately forsake her. What could have been more vexatious than its behaviour in the Hotel Cecil, when Mrs Wilcox wished to write a poem about Queen Victoria's funeral? She had been sent across the Atlantic for that very purpose. Not a word could she write. The newspaper-man was coming for her copy at nine the next morning. She had not put pen to paper when she went to bed. She was in despair. And then at the inconvenient hour of three a.m. the Muse relented. Mrs Wilcox woke with four verses running in her head. 'I felt an immense sense of relief. I knew that I could write something the editor would like; something England would like. ' And, indeed, 'The Queen's Last Ride' was set to music by a friend of King Edward's, and sung in the presence of the entire Royal family, one of whom afterwards graciously sent her a message of thanks.
Capricious and fanciful, nevertheless the Muse has a heart of gold; she never does desert Mrs Wilcox. Every experience turns, almost of its own accord and at the most unexpected moments, to verse. She goes to stay with friends; she sits next a young widow in the omnibus. She forgets all about it. But as she stands before the looking-glass fastening her white dress in the evening, something whispers to her:
Laugh and the world laughs with you, Weep and you weep alone, For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth, It has trouble enough of its own.
The following morning at the breakfast table I recited the quatrain to the Judge and his wife... and the Judge, who was a great Shakespearean scholar said, 'Ella, if you keep the remainder of the poem up to the epigrammatic standard, you will have a literary gem.'
She did keep the poem up to that standard, and two days later he said, 'Ella, that is one of the biggest things you ever did, and you are mistaken in thinking it uneven in merit, it is all good and up to the mark.' Such is the depravity of mankind, however, that a wretched creature called Joyce, belonging to 'the poison-insect order of humanity', as Mrs Wilcox says, afterwards claimed that he had written 'Solitude' himself - written it, too, upon the head of a whiskey barrel in a wine-room.
A poetess also was very trying. Mrs Wilcox, who is generosity itself, detected unusual genius in her verse, and fell in love with the idea of playing Fairy Godmother to the provincial poetess. She invited her to stay at an hotel, and gave a party in her honour. Mrs Croly, Mrs Leslie, Robert Ingersoll, Nym Crinkle, and Harriet Webb all came in person. The carriages extended many blocks down the street. Several of the young woman's poems were recited; 'there was some good music and a tasteful supper'. Moreover, each guest, on leaving, was given a piece of ribbon upon which was printed the verse that Mrs Wilcox so much admired. What more could she have done? And yet the ungrateful creature went off with the barest words of thanks; scarcely answered letters; refused to explain her motives, and stayed in New York with an eminent literary man without letting Mrs Wilcox know.
To this day when I see the occasional gems of beauty which fall from this poet's pen I feel the old wound ache in my heart.... Life, however, always supplies a balm after it has wounded us.... The spring following this experience my husband selected a larger apartment.
For by this time Ella Wheeler was Wilcox.
She first met Mr Wilcox in a jeweller's shop in Milwaukee. He was engaged in the sterling-silver business, and she had run in to ask the time. Ironically enough she never noticed him. There was Mr Wilcox, a large, handsome man with a Jewish face and a deep bass voice, doing business with the jeweller, and she never noticed his presence. Out she went again, anxious only to be in time for dinner, and thought no more about it. A few days later a very distinguished-looking letter arrived in a blue envelope. Might Mr Wilcox be presented to her? 'I knew it was, according to established ideas, bordering on impropriety, yet I so greatly admired the penmanship and stationery of my would-be acquaintance that I was curious to know more of him.' They corresponded. Mr Wilcox's letters were 'sometimes a bit daring', but never sentimental; and they were always enclosed in envelopes 'of a very beautiful shade', while 'the crest on the paper seemed to lead me away from everything banal and common'. And then the Oriental paper-knife arrived. This had an extraordinary effect upon her such as had hitherto been produced only by reading 'a rare poem, or hearing lovely music, or in the presence of some of Ouida's exotic descriptions.' She went to Chicago and met Mr Wilcox in the flesh. He seemed to her - correctly dressed and very cultured in manner as he was - 'like a man from Mars'. Soon afterwards they were married, and almost immediately Mr Wilcox, to the profound joy of his wife, expressed his belief in the immortality of the soul.
Mrs Wilcox was now established in New York, the admired centre of a circle of 'very worth-while people'. Her dreams in the sunset were very nearly realized. The Bungalow walls were covered with autographs of brilliant writers and the sketches of gifted artists. Universal brotherhood was attempted. It was the rule of the house 'to treat mendicants with sympathy and peddlers with respect'. No one left without 'some little feeling of uplift'. What was wanting? In the first place, 'the highbrows have never had any use for me'. The highbrows could be dispatched with a phrase. 'May you grow at least a sage bush of a heart to embellish your desert of intellect!'
All the same, in her next incarnation, she will have nothing to do with genius. 'To be a gifted poet is a glory; to be a worthwhile woman is a greater glory.' There are moments when she wishes that the Muse would leave her at peace. To be the involuntary mouthpiece of Songs of Purpose, Passion, and Power, greet the war with Hello, Boys and death with Sonnets of Sorrow and Triumph, to feel that at any moment a new gem may form or a fresh cameo compose itself, what fate could be more appalling? Yet such has been the past, and such must be the future, of Ella Wheeler Wilcox.