Wednesday, April 6, 2011


The saying, Laugh and the world laughs with you , weep and you weep alone  may be familiar to some,   but I  bet most  don’t know  it’s the opening line from the poem, Solitude or   its author, Ella Wheeler Wilcox was a 19th century American author and poet.

Solitude  was first published  in 1883 ,  in an issue of The New York Sun, and  earned Wilcox  a whopping five dollars .  Now recognized as one of her most famous poems it was included in several anthologies:  Best Loved Poems of the American People , edited by Hazel Felleman , Best Remembered Poems,  edited by Martin Gardner, and One Hundred and One Famous Poems along with Longfellow, Frost and Markham.

 Equally, her poems have been cited in anthologies of bad poetry. The author Sinclair Lewis  even mocks her writing when he indicates Babbitt’s lack of literary sophistication by having him refer to a piece of verse as  “one of the classic poems, like If by Kipling, or Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s The Man Worth While. “ Although Lewis was the first American author to win the Nobel prize for literature,   my grandmother Cooney  would disagree with him  in mocking Wilcox and Kipling, via Babbitt’s character,   as having a lack  of literary sophistication.  A framed print of If  hung in my dad’s  boyhood bedroom, eventually finding its way to my brother, Walt’s boyhood bedroom; it was one of grandma’s favorite poems  to recite:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings— nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it
And  - which is more—you’ll be a Man , my son!

I  can assure you, my grandmother  did not lack in literary sophistication, but she was plain spoken ,  full of optimism  and good cheer.   It  wouldn’t surprise me to learn grandma read some of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poems  - maybe even from a  copy of the  book I have now , Kingdom of Love And How Salvator Won  copyright 1902,  and  liked her plainly written, rhyming verse from The Winds of Fate :

One ship drives east and another drives west
With the selfsame winds that blow,
‘Tis the set of the sails,
 And not the gales,
That tell us the way to go.

Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate:
As we voyage along through life,
‘Tis the set of a soul
That decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.

Writing an article for Women’s History Guide, Jane Johnson Lewis in her titled piece, A Major Poet 1901 says Wilcox was  wildly published in her life time . Sometimes compared to Walt Whitman because of the feeling she poured into her poems, at the same time Wilcox  maintained a very traditional form, unlike Whitman or Emily Dickinson. Wilcox's poems and essays appeared in both women's magazines and literary magazines, and by 1919  began appearing in Bartlett's Famous Quotations. 

I have read several of Wilcox’s poems, and honestly speaking, I do  like some better than others, among them—The Kingdom of Love and Memory’s River.  My favorite ,  How Salvator Won  is about real life  Salvator,  an American thoroughbred race horse,  maybe the best racehorse during the latter half of the 19th century.  After Salvator beat Tenny, another racehorse of great speed and beauty, at the Suburban Handicap, Tenny’s owner  had a hard time accepting it, and challenged   Salvator’s owner to a match race.  It took place  on June 25, 1890.  By all accounts it was the race of a lifetime.    The horses ran  side by side for three furloughs.  Then Salvador led by two lengths.  Tenny came very fast and was overhauling Salvator, but the latter lasted to win by a nose.   Ella Wheeler Wilcox was so overcome  by the excitement of the race ,  she was inspired to write a poem about it .  To long to copy in its entirety here is a sample verse:

There’s a roar  from the crowd like the ocean in storm,
As close to my saddle leaps Tenny’s great form,
One more mighty plunge, and with knee, limb and
I lift my horse first by a nose past the stand.
We are under the string now—the great race is done,
And Salvator, Salvator, Salvator won !

Not only was Wheeler  a poet, but a bit of a historian, too .

Postscript:  Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s  quote, “ Love lights more fires than hate extinguishes” is  inscribed on a paving slab in Jack Kerouac Alley in San Francisco  *  The first stanza of her poem  “The Man Worth While” can be found in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, in the boiler room portion  of the queue for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.   

* The complete poem How Salvator Won  can be
read at

* To read my blog A Love For Poetry link to

* April is National Poetry month. Read a poem ! Write a poem !  Hug a poet !


Mary Jane Honegger said...

Thank you Kathy for your words of inspiration to all of us poets out here that don't have the poetic vision or literary expertise of others. Thanks for letting us know that lofty words may reach some, but that there is also appreciation for the common words and simple thoughts that others of us might use to express our feelings through poetry. I have never read Wilcox's poems, but will look at some of her poems now. MJ

Anonymous said...

Kathy first of all I will congratulate you on writing such a informative article. I too like Mary Jane Honegger never read Wilcox's poems but after reading your article I surely want to read them.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Thank you for the affirmation, Anonymous ! I appreciate it. While most of us are familiar with many of the famous poets - i.e. Browning,Longfellow, Tennyson, Millay - it's always fun to discover a new poet (from past or present) to read