- The Milwaukee School of Fleshly Poetry:Ella Wheeler Wilcox's Poems of Passion and Popular Aestheticism
"How can one begin? Where can one leave off?" (Woolf 97). Faced with Ella Wheeler Wilcox's autobiography, The Worlds and I, Virginia Woolf was—or claimed to be—stymied:
There never was a more difficult book to review. If one puts in the Madame de Staël of Milwaukee, there will be no room for the tea-leaves; if one concentrates upon Helen Pitkin, Raley Husted Bell . . . must be done without. . . . [A]nd as for Ella Wheeler Wilcox—Mrs [sic] 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.(97)
Beginning with the publication of Poems of Passion in 1883 and continuing through the first decades of the twentieth century, Ella Wheeler Wilcox1 was quite possibly the most commercially successful and most ridiculed poet in the English-speaking world. On the one hand, her popularity was indisputable; as her obituary in the London Times put it, she was "the most popular poet of either sex and of any age, read by thousands who never open Shakespeare" ("Death of Ella Wheeler Wilcox").
Yet her reputation was also bad, as the Literary Digest noted: "Few poets in American letters made so sudden and sensational a success as she did with her initial volume, 'Poems of Passion,' and most persons to whom such luck befell would not have had the staying power to pass through nearly a generation of more or less kindly treatment as a joke" ("Current Poetry" 38). Since the advent of modernism, her work has survived as a negative—a ghostly reference point for moderns from Harriet Monroe to S. J. Perelman, marking what American poetry is not or what it should not be. In his 1929 study Practical Criticism, [End Page 69] I. A. Richards suggests that Wilcox is bad because she "overdoes" commonplace emotions, thus insulting the reader while revealing her own (low) rank (207). The joke continues to resonate, as evidenced by John Ashbery's faux-homage, "Variations, Calypso, and Fugue on the Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox," in which, Mark Silverberg argues, Ashbery embraces Wilcox precisely because she is so bad (286).
Lately, however, a few critics have included Wilcox in recovery projects that stress her commonalities with other neglected women poets.2 Shira Wolosky, for instance, argues that Wilcox's poetry is good, like that of Julia Ward Howe, Frances Harper, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, because it advances the common good, offering "a poetic self-representation deeply continuous with the situated selfhood of nineteenth-century women, recognizing the sources of the self to be in community and history. In this, [poetry] provides both a countermodel and a critique of the possessive individualism increasingly dominant in American society and of the loss of civic life to private interests" (689). Wolosky's description certainly fits the poetry of Gilman, Howe, and Harper, but it does not entirely apply to Wilcox, who did not offer a countermodel to the dominant discourse of laissez-faire economics. Rather, as my reading of Poems of Passion will show, Wilcox refined and feminized possessive individualism, developing a vocabulary of aesthetic intimacy that seemed to expose private (interior, psychological) feelings but that was ultimately—or also—about amassing private (autonomous, commodified) property.
Perhaps a more illuminating context for Poems of Passion is the fad of commercial aestheticism that swept through American popular culture in the wake of Oscar Wilde's 1883 tour of America. Later nineteenth-century popular culture, as described by Rachel Bowlby, Ellen Gruber Garvey, and Martha H. Patterson, made women increasingly visible both as consumers and as objects of consumption. Bowlby has further argued, "The aesthete, far from being different from the new consumer of the period, turns out to be . . . his or her 'perfect type'" (Shopping with Freud 7). Drawing heavily on the popularity of Wilde, and even more heavily on the extravagant style of Algernon Swinburne, Wilcox's aesthetic tropes respond to a set of subtle shifts in mainstream, middle-class...