Monday, August 29, 2011

Bad Romance? Bad Medicine? Bad Poetry?

I know you've heard this saying:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you.
Weep, and you weep alone.

Did you know that these words are the beginning of a poem called "Solitude" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox? The poem was published in 1883. Here is the complete first stanza of that poem:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.

The reason I bring this up is because I just finished reading a novel based on the life of Ella Wheeler Wilcox: Ella Moon by Ed Ifkovic (Waubesa Press, the quality fiction imprint of Badger Books Inc.)

I found this book while I was on my way home from a vacation recently. It was shelved with others at a Country Inn and Suites motel, where they often have collections of books that guests can borrow -- with the idea that we will return them (or some other book of our choice) to the next Country Inn and Suites motel we visit. I was almost done with the book I was reading at the time, and thought I might need another book to get me home.

The book jacket blurb drew me in:
She was one of the Victorian world's most popular poets. Her life was a tapistry [sic] of color and melodrama, an epic of rags to riches. This fictionalized account chronicles both the glittering heights of Ella Wheeler Wilcox's life and the nagging fears that accompanied her vast and cherished success.
Ifkovic notes that Ella Moon "is not literary biography: it is how I imagine her. . . In the process I wanted to find a different EWW, the one who existed outside her verse -- the one I carry in my mind."

Much of what is included in the novel comes from Mrs. Wilcox's autobiography: The Worlds and I (1919). Here is a link to a pdf file of that autobiography (available from Google books):

I found the story of this woman's life and career utterly fascinating. Born in poverty on a farm in Wisconsin, she became a published poet at age 14 -- primarily because she simply refused to stop sending her work to publishers. To say that she was persistent would be an understatement. She was driven. By the age of 16 or 17, she was basically supporting her family on earnings from her poetry. The nickname "Ella Moon" was given to her by her father, who thought that he saw her pointing at the moon when she was a child. Ella corrected him, saying she was pointing toward Milwaukee, where she hoped to find fame and recognition, a beautiful life far removed from the farm.

I was captivated by the complex nature of Ella's relationship with her parents and siblings, her views of life, and her evolution from a Wisconsin farm girl to a famous poet known all over the world. I was mesmerized by her efforts to communicate with her deceased husband -- successful by her account -- and her journey to France during World War I, which she undertook because he told her to do it in messages delivered by her ouija board.

As for her poetry, it is quite overwrought in most cases (by modern standards, and even by the standards of her day). Yet there is value in exploring her choice of words, the structure of her verses, and the subject matter she covers. When I read her poetry, I feel transported back to my teenage years, when I used poetry as a way to express the depths of heart and soul. Melodramatic? Yes. Predictable rhythm and rhyme? Yes. But I have to ask, if Ella Wheeler Wilcox's poetry is so "bad" -- why does so much of it resonate, touch, delight, and inspire?

The summer is just in its grandest prime,
The earth is green and the skies are blue;
But where is the lilt of the olden time,
When life was a melody set to rhyme,
And dreams were so real they all seemed true?
~ Ella Wheeler Wilcox

1 comment:

  1. She was an excellent poet.
    I love reading her work.


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