Thursday, June 2, 2011

Poetry Raises Its Arrows

You never can tell when you send a word,
   Like an arrow shot from a bow
By an archer blind, be it cruel or kind,
   Just where it may chance to go.
It may pierce the breast of your dearest friend.
   Tipped with its poison or balm,
To a stranger's heart in life's great mart,
    It may carry its pain or its calm.

The above is the first verse of a poem titled "You Never Can Tell" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. I can never tell whether or not she was writing this about writing or some other subject, because in her second verse she writes about doing an act, sowing a seed, and dropping an acorn. In the final verse she poetizes about thoughts, airy wings, the law of the universe "And they speed o'er the track to bring you back, Whatever went out from your mind."

When I push my arms against the desk and roll my chair back, there comes to mind the thought that she was writing about the effect that words have on whoever they land and by sowing seeds and dropping acorns, great things may show up in the fertile minds of those who master the art of wordry. She says, "You never can tell what your thoughts will do, in bringing you hate or love;  for thoughts are things and their airy wings are swifter than carrier doves." 

Ella Wheeler Wilcox was born in 1850 in Johnstown, Wisconsin, and died in 1919 of cancer. She is famous for her poem "Solitude", the opening lines being "Laugh, and the world laughs with you, Weep, and you weep alone." I should say those lines are more famous than she is, since whenever they're used they are not credited. She is also "famous" for another poem, "Custer," or she may have been for awhile when it was first published or she may be still among her admirers.

"Custer" is a long poem, broken down into three "books" with many verses and she eloquently reviews his life and sudden death in the massacre at the Little Big Horn. A fine poem.

More on Mrs. Wilcox in the next post.


  1. Great quote. I don't believe I'm familiar with Mrs. Wilcox but it sounds like I need to start paying some attention.

  2. Didn't know the Laugh-Weep quote was from her. Someone else has said that we read, so as not to feel alone. Thoreau said something similar about his favorite writers. That is a way that words reach across time and space. I've certainly been glad for that.

  3. Charles, I'm just starting my familiarization with Mrs. Wilcox and I was curious as to why she wasn't mentioned in my high school class on literature like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Poe, Longfellow, etc. Maybe she wasn't considered a good enough poet by the teacher or the district or whoever.

    Ron, we've all heard that Laugh-Weep line many times but who knew where it came from? My wife thought Shakespeare. I'm glad, too, for the invention of writing and reading. You're never alone doing one or the other.