Poetastery and pollies

Lovely word, isn’t it?

The faults of a poetaster frequently include errors or lapses in their work’s meter, badly rhyming words which jar rather than flow, oversentimentality, too much use of the pathetic fallacy and unintentionally bathetic choice of subject matter…

This poet is an example, according to most critics and historians of poetry, though she may not be the worst. There was a silver-fish nibbled copy of the following at the bottom of a cupboard at our place when I was growing up. It had belonged to my Grandfather Tom Whitfield. When he had a daughter in Shellharbour in 1904 she was named “Ella”. My late aunt, of course. Coincidence? I wonder.


That’s not the one: I took it from Project Gutenberg.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox is the source of the “lifters and leaners” so celebrated these days in Governmentspeak. I am obliged to an excellent post by Jim Belshaw and its comment thread for this information.

THERE are two kinds of people on earth to-day;
Just two kinds of people, no more, I say.

Not the sinner and saint, for it’s well understood,
The good are half bad, and the bad are half good.

Not the rich and the poor, for to rate a man’s wealth,
You must first know the state of his conscience and health.

Not the humble and proud, for in life’s little span,
Who puts on vain airs, is not counted a man.

Not the happy and sad, for the swift flying years
Bring each man his laughter and each man his tears.

No; the two kinds of people on earth I mean,
Are the people who lift, and the people who lean.

Wherever you go, you will find the earth’s masses,
Are always divided in just these two classes.

And oddly enough, you will find too, I ween,
There’s only one lifter to twenty who lean.

In which class are you? Are you easing the load,
Of overtaxed lifters, who toil down the road?

Or are you a leaner, who lets others share
Your portion of labor, and worry and care?

Subtlety of thought was not Ms Wilcox’s strong point.

She is frequently cited in anthologies of bad poetry, such as The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse and Very Bad Poetry. Sinclair Lewis 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.'” The latter opens:

It is easy enough to be pleasant,

When life flows by like a song,

But the man worth while is one who will smile,

When everything goes dead wrong.

Perhaps Ella Wheeler Wilcox inspired one the better-known images that emerged from the recent Budget:


I Like Cigars

Beneath the stars,
Upon the waters blue.
To laugh and float
While rocks the boat
Upon the waves,–Don’t you?

To rest the oar
And float to shore,–
While soft the moonbeams shine,–
To laugh and joke,
And idly smoke;
I think is quite divine.

I found that on a blog I have never seen before: see The Ella Wheeler Wilcox Top 30 Countdown. I must visit Clattery Machinery on Poetry again!

Mind you, #1 in that top thirty really is well known:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
    Weep, and you weep alone,
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
    But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
    Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
    But are slow to voice your care….

It seems she – like quite a few others – was not immune, however, to the tide of hatred that characterised World War One.  This is from a little book called Hello Boys! (Yes, I checked it hoping it might be a bit raunchy…)


Lie down, and let the billows hide your shame,
Oh, shorn and naked outcast of the seas!
You who confided to each ocean breeze
Your coming conquests, and made loud acclaim
Of your own grandeur and exalted fame;
You who have catered to they world’s disease;
You who have drunk hate’s wine, and found the lees;
Lie down! and let all men forget your name!

You dreamed of world dominion! you! the spawn
Of hell and hatred—Foe to all things free—
Sworn enemy to honour, truth and right;
Too poor a thing now for the Devil’s pawn,
Let the large mercy of the outraged sea
Engulf and hide you evermore from sight.

Mind you, there are other thoughts in that pamphlet.  There is a very odd poem called “Come Back Clean” which appears to be about venereal disease, for example.

‘I may not leave for my children
   Brave medals that I have worn,
But the blood in my veins shall leave no stains
   On bride or on babes unborn;
And the scars that my body may carry
   Shall not be from deeds obscene,
For my will shall say to the beast, Obey!
   And I will come back clean.

The “lifters and leaners” catchphrase was indeed used also by R G Menzies: see Robert Menzies’ other forgotten people by Don Arthur (July 2014).

… Categorising people according to their moral and personal qualities rather than their position in the economy has a commonsense appeal, according to Brett. She argues that this is how most people think about themselves and about those they know (Brett 1993, p. 42). The division of people into the two classes of lifters and leaners fits with the everyday experience of life in homes and workplaces where most of us keep a keen eye on who is doing their fair share and who is not. The popular American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox was probably the first to use the words lifter and leaner. In her late 19th century poem ‘Which are you?’ she wrote that there were only two kinds of people:

… the two kinds of people on earth I mean,
Are the people who lift, and the people who lean.

Wherever you go, you will find the earth’s masses,
Are always divided in just these two classes (Wheeler Wilcox 1903).

Wheeler Wilcox was one of the most popular American poets of her generation. In the early decades of the 20th century her words found their way into many Australian newspapers, sometimes attributed, and sometimes not. ‘Which are you?’ sometimes appeared under the title ‘Lifters and leaners’ (in, for example, the Healesville Guardian in 1895). It is likely that Wheeler Wilcox is the source of Menzies’ reference to lifters and leaners. Part of what made Wheeler Wilcox so popular was the way her poems reflected readers’ commonsense understandings of the world. Lifters and leaners focuses on individuals and puts their choices and actions in the foreground. With the social and economic context forming a blurry background for the main action, a natural way to explain why some people succeed and others fail is to look for differences in their characters and behaviour. In his forgotten people speech, Menzies deliberately focuses on individual explanations for social outcomes. He dismisses abstract ideas like ‘financial power’, ‘morale’ or ‘man power’ arguing that at the ‘motive power of human progress’ is the ‘intelligent ambition’ of individuals (Menzies 1942a)….

And finally, see From Bad to Verse by Kathy Hunt.

The vast treasures of the past remain undiscovered, unlooked for or simply forgotten, so sure are we of the nuggets of our time. The 19th century alone delivered a cargo, which remains mostly unloaded on the docks of our contemporary minds, but if anything spilled through its torn corners, it was the spirit of the age, that long reign chronicled by what must be some of the worst poetry ever written:

Smile a little, smile a little,
All along the road;
Every life must have it’s burden,
Every heart it’s load.
Why sit down in gloom and darkness
With your grief to sup?
As you drink Fate’s bitter tonic,
Smile across the cup.

The creator of these lines, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, lies buried at the back of a collection of English essays…


2 thoughts on “Poetastery and pollies

  1. Very interesting post Neil – thanks for expanding the conversation. So I take it you don’t subscribe to Innes’ Manchurian defense?

    Anyway, it sent me off to Google yet again to search the “there are two kinds/types of people” trope – amazingly common it seems. There is a sub-genre talking about “givers and takers” which seems fairly close, but I think I have settled upon my favourite as “there are 10 kinds of people in the world; those who understand binary, and those who don’t. Appeals to my quirkiness.

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