Today is the birthday of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who “was an American author and poet. Her best-known work was Poems of Passion. Her most enduring work was ‘Solitude,’ which contains the lines ‘Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.’ Her autobiography, The Worlds and I, was published in 1918, a year before her death.” She was also a confirmed prohibitionist and wrote many temperance poems that are absolutely rife with ridiculous propaganda, along the order of “Reefer Madness” in their misinformation, and are similarly unintentionally funny … almost. But she started writing such works as a young woman, having never once consumed a drop of alcohol herself so her ignorance, while understandable, is no less dangerous and uninformed. Also, her poetry wasn’t very good, but it was popular. For example, her poetry’s described on her Wikipedia page:
A popular poet rather than a literary poet, in her poems she expresses sentiments of cheer and optimism in plainly written, rhyming verse. Her world view is expressed in the title of her poem “Whatever Is—Is Best”, suggesting an echo of Alexander Pope’s “Whatever is, is right,” a concept formally articulated by Gottfried Leibniz and parodied by Voltaire’s character Doctor Pangloss in Candide.
None of Wilcox’s works were included by F. O. Matthiessen in The Oxford Book of American Verse, but Hazel Felleman chose no fewer than fourteen of her poems for Best Loved Poems of the American People, while Martin Gardner selected “The Way Of The World” and “The Winds of Fate” for Best Remembered Poems.
She is frequently cited in anthologies of bad poetry, such as The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse and Very Bad Poetry.
Here’s a representative example, written around 1872, and entitled “Ph. Best & Co.’s Lager-Beer.” In the poem, he really sticks it to Philip Best for making and selling beer, all but calling him a murderer. Needless to say, she must have been a hoot at parties.
Ph. Best & Co.’s Lager-Beer
“In every part of the thrifty town,
Whether my course be up or down,
In lane, and alley, and avenue,
Painted in yellow, and red, and blue,
This side and that, east and west,
Was this flaunting sign-board of ‘Ph. Best.’
’Twas hung high up, and swung in the air
With a swaggering, bold-faced, ‘devil-may-care-
It-is-none-of-your-business’ sort of way;
Or, as if dreading the light o’ the day,
It hung low, over a basement-stair,
And seemed ashamed when you saw it there.
Or it shone like a wicked and evil eye
From a ‘restaurant’ door on passers-by,
And seemed with a twinkling wink to say:
‘Are you bound for hell? Then step this way;
This is the ticket-office of sin;
If you think of purchasing, pray, walk in.’
Or it glared from a window where the light
Of the lamps within shone full and bright,
And seemed to be saying, ‘Come out of the storm!
Come into my haven snug and warm;
I will give you warmth from the flowing bowl,
And all I ask is your purse and soul.’
But whether on window, door, or stair,
Wherever I went, it was always there;
Painted in yellow, and red, and blue,
It stared from alley and avenue:
It was north and south, and east, and west,
The lager-beer of this Philip Best.
And who was Philip Best, you ask?
Oh! he was a man, whose noble task
Was the brewing of beer — good beer, first class —
That should sparkle, and bubble, and boil in the glass:
Should sparkle and flow till drank, and then
Feast like a vampire on brains of men.
Ah! Philip Best, you have passed from view,
But your name and your works love after you.
Come, brothers, raise him a monument,
Inscribed, ‘Here lies the man who sent
A million of souls to the depths of hell;
Turned genius and worth to the prison-cell;
Stole bread from the mouth of the hungry child:
Made the father a brute, and the mother wild;
Filled happy homes with dread unrest:
Oh! a very great man was Philip Best.
O Ph. Best! you have passed from view,
But your name and your deeds live after you.’”
She was nicknamed “the poet laureate of the Temperance Movement,” and indeed her very first book of poetry, “Drops of Water: Poems,” was published by The National Temperance Movement and Publication House. It’s quite startling to see how they viewed drinking people and especially the people making and selling alcoholic beverages as less than human, something you still see today in the propaganda of modern prohibitionist groups. But some of her poems are just crazy.
Here are some more excerpts from some of her other temperance poems:
From “What I Have Seen, Number III”
“I saw two men: one was fair to behold;
The other, a drunken sot, bloated and bold.
One stood on the mountain and drank of God’s fountain,
The other drank beer in the street.
Yet both started alike; but one made a ’stroke,’
Which ended, you see, in defeat.”
From “What I Have Seen, Number V”
“I saw his candidate sipping his beer,
Wiping his mustache and lapping his jaws;
And I said to myself, ‘ It’s decidedly queer,
If this is the man that should help make our laws,’
But may be he is — may be he is!
I won’t say it outright, but may be he is!”
From “Don’t Drink”
“Don’t drink, boys, don’t!
There is nothing of happiness, pleasure, or cheer,
In brandy, in whiskey, in rum, or beer.
If they cheer you when when drunk, you are certain to pay
In headaches and crossness the following day.
Don’t drink, boys, don’t!”
From “Where are the Temperance People?”
“Where are the temperance people?
Well, scattered here and there:
Some gathering in their produce
To show at the autumn fair:
Some threshing wheat for market,
And others threshing rye,
That will go to the fat distiller
For whiskey by-and-by.
And some are selling their hop crops
At a first-rate price, this year,
And the seller pockets the money,
While the drunkard swallows the beer.
And some ’staunch temperance workers’(?)
Who’d do anything for the cause,
Save too give it a dime or a moment,
Or work for temperance laws,
May be seen from now to election,
Near any tavern stand
Where liquor flows in plenty,
With a voter on either hand.
And these temperance office-seekers
That we hear of far and near
Are the ones who furnish the money
That buys the lager-beer.”
From “Give Us a Call”
“Give us a call! We keep good beer,
Wine, and brandy, and whiskey here;
Our doors are open to boys and men,
And even to women, now and then.
We lighten their purses, we taint their breaths,
We swell up the column of awful deaths;
All kinds of crimes
We sell for dimes
In our sugared poisons, so sweet to taste!
If you’ve money, position, or name to waste,
Give us a call!
Give us a call! In a pint of our gin,
We sell more wickedness, shame, and sin
Than a score of clergymen, preaching all day
From dawn till darkness, could preach away,
And in our beer (though it may take longer
To get a man drunk than drinks that are stronger)
We sell out poverty, sorrow, and woe —
Who wants purchase? Our prices are low.
Give us a call!”
From “Origin of the Liquor Dealer”
“Turn it in, to a lake of gin,
Where the devil bathes, to cool.
Then lift it up, and turn to a cup
Of wine they dip from a pool.
Then they dip it in ale, till it turneth pale,
In beer, till it growth red.
It? nay, HE! for the thing they see
Is a man, from heel to head.”
And here’s one more full poem:
From “The Brewer’s Dog”
“The brewer’s dog is abroad boys,
Be careful where you stray,
His teeth are coated with poison,
And he’s on the watch for prey.
The brewery is his kennel,
But he lurks on every hand,
And he seeks for easy victims
The children of the land.
His eyes gleam through the windows
Of the gay saloon at night,
And in many a first-class ‘drug store’
He is hiding out of sight.
Be careful where you enter,
And, if you smell his breath,
Flee as you would from a viper,
For its fumes are the fumes of death.
O boys! would you kill the bloodhound?
Would you slay the snarling whelp?
I know that you can do it
If every one will help.
You must make a solemn promise
To drink no ale or beer,
And soon the feeble death-wail
Of the brewer’s dog we’ll hear.
For, if all keep the promise,
You can starve him out, I know;
But, if boys and men keep drinking,
The dog will thrive and grow.”