Here are three poems by a neglected (some would say deservedly so) Wisconsin born and raised American poet– Ella Wheeler Wilcox, whose late 19th and early 20th Century verse is full of rhyme and meter and “sentimental” Victorian optimism, the very thing the Modernists rebelled against. And yet many of her poems have a witty, whimsical forthrightness about them. Even the strident activism of her feminist and pacifist poems is not without a musical moral force that is bracing when compared to, say, Whitman’s paternal, prosy patriotism and Dickinson’s slanted inner obsessions. Let’s not disparage and discard what is best in Victorian verse.

Ella_Wheeler_Wilcox,_Custer,_1896,_frontispiece
By Ella Wheeler Wilcox (text), photographer unknown, 1896, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A short autobiography of Wheeler Wilcox can be found here, courtesy of the Ella Wheeler Wilcox Society. And though the NY Times has recently been trying to make amends for failing to publish obituaries of many prominent women, here is the NY Times’s obituary for the “prolific versifier” dated Oct. 31, 1919.

 

How Like the Sea by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

How like the sea, the myriad-minded sea,
Is this large love of ours: so vast, so deep,
So full of myseries! it, too, can keep
Its secrets, like the ocean; and is free,
Free, as the boundless main. Now it may be
Calm like the brow of some sweet child asleep;
Again its seething billows surge and leap
And break in fulness of their ecstasy.

Each wave so like the wave which came before,
Yet never two the same! Imperative
And then persuasive as the cooing dove,
Encroaching ever on the yielding shore—
Ready to take; yet readier still to give—
How like the myriad-minded sea, is love.

 

Camouflage by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Camouflage is all the rage.
Ladies in their fight with age–
Soldiers in their fight with foes–
Demagogues who mask and pose
In the guise of statesmen–girls
Black of eyes with golden curls–
Politicians, votes in mind,
Smiling, affable and kind,
All use camouflage to-day.
As you go upon your way,
Walk with caution, move with care;
Camouflage is everywhere!

 

Disarmament by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

We have outgrown the helmet and cuirass,
The spear, the arrow, and the javelin.
These crude inventions of a cruder age,
When men killed men to show their love of God,
And he who slaughtered most was greatest king.
We have outgrown the need of war! Should men
Unite in this one thought, all war would end.
Disarm the world; and let all Nations meet
Like Men, not monsters, when disputes arise.
When crossed opinions tangle into snarls,
Let Courts untie them, and not armies cut.
When State discussions breed dissentions, let
Union and Arbitration supersede
The hell-created implements of War.
Disarm the world! and bid destructive thought
Slip like a serpent from the mortal mind
Down through the marshes of oblivion and soon
A race of gods shall rise!. Disarm! Disarm!

 

[poems obtained from poets.org and the Ella Wheeler Wilcox Society]

Rights of Man title page
Rights of Man title page (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, I came across an astounding statistic: only 8% of Americans believe that a child is better off if his or her father stays at home while the mother works. 51% of Americans are said to think a mother at home improves the lives of children. As a “stay-at-home dad”, I find this poor opinion of my fatherly prowess to be a shocking statement of American prejudice. It suggests that a large majority of Americans feel that women are better parents than men. It also implies that a man’s place is not at home. And yet in 2010, according to the U.S. Census, 20% of fathers were “the primary caregivers” of children under 5, which means that some stay-at-home dads likely believe their wives or girlfriends really ought to be the primary givers of care to children. Clearly it’s time for men to fight for the right to stay home, raise kids and feel good about it in the face of great pressure to go out and “be a man.”

The rights of men (not to be confused with The Rights of Man) have gotten a lot of interest lately, namely from men who feel slighted by the rights of women. There is something called the “men’s rights movement” which, as far as I can tell, exists to promote the right of men to be obnoxious, insulting and cruel to women who want only to assert their democratic rights. I have no sympathy with this men’s movement, for I see nothing wrong with helping to secure the true independence of women. And some men have never really given up the right to treat women poorly, anyway, so the “men’s rights movement” seems like just another exclusive club for men. I don’t want to demean or exclude women; in fact, I want to join them, to have the same right to stay home and be respected for it.

I realize that not all feminists may respect the women who choose to stay home with kids rather than work at “a job” or “pursue a career.” If 51% think it’s good for children to have a woman stay home to care for them, that still leaves a lot of other Americans who don’t think either parent hanging around has much of an effect on a child’s well-being. But women with well-paid significant others at least are seen as having a respectable choice–work or stay home–and no doubt many women agonize over making the decision. Of course, single parents of either gender generally have no choice but to work away from home.

A man, however, is apparently expected by the nation to be a person who goes forth by car or train or bike every morning to do battle with broken things or numbers or freshmen or criminals or, if he is a “Tea Party” Republican representative, he puts on a suit of impregnable denial to ward off logic and reason, which probably works better outside his own home. This male-as-commuter ideal may be partly why male farmers are in decline and lack general prestige; sure, they leave the house, but they don’t go very far and their work involves a lot of caregiving and getting dirty, much like being a stay-at-home dad.

So it is time for us professional fathers to band together, however half-heartedly, to assert our minority rights and defend our manhood. Almost the entire nation thinks we are wasting our time; we live in a nation where manhood is assumed to be the opposite of womanhood and housework (cleaning) and child rearing is still mostly women’s work. While the stress of breaking old gender roles is not something we victims of anti-father sentiment are willing (being men) to admit, help is available if we need it. And the loneliness of our noble cause, the failure of our wives or partners and working male friends to fully appreciate our marginalization, has forced some fathers to create their own patriarchal union, a National At-Home Dad Network sponsored by Huggies and other sympathetic corporate brands.

The point is we home-bound fathers, we farmers of children and dirty sheets, are beginning to find our voices: it is our unalienable right as American men not to put up with this discrimination. Besides, we are also fighting, indirectly, for the women who want to work at home as mothers. Yes, we stand proudly with our fellow stay-at-home moms and hope they will soon proudly stand with us.