Artist’s Life by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

‘Artist’s Life’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox is a six stanza poem which is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains conforms to a consistent and structured pattern of rhyme. The verses follow the scheme of, abab cdcd, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. 

Wilcox has not chosen to adhere to one particular metrical pattern. There are lines which contain anywhere from six to eleven beats. The variety of line lengths and rhythmic sounds are used in this piece to emphasize the wide range of emotions that exist within the speaker when she thinks of the song, “Artist’s Life” by Strauss. When the music is playing she is brought back to a number of different memories, all which have different connotations and connections in her mind. Her emotions do not remain consistent or mellow, they are always moving and varying, like the meter. 

 Before beginning this piece it is important to note a few background details concerning the piece of music the speaker will be referencing within the text. Johann Strauss was an Austrian composer of light music. He is known to have written over 500 waltzes, polkas and quadrilles. His piece, “Artist’s Life’ was written in 1867 after the Austrian army suffered a crushing defeat in the Battle of Königgrätz. It was his goal to uplift the community after this tragedy. He ended writing a piece that was named as the “twin” of “The Blue Danube.” It has remained popular since its conception. 

 

Summary of Artist’s Life

‘Artist’s Life’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox describes the personal and emotional connection a speaker has to Strauss’ composition, “Artist’s Life.” 

The poem begins with the speaker stating that of all the “waltzes” Strauss wrote, she likes “his “Artist’s Life”’ the most. It brings her to an emotional state in which she can recall the fondest of memories. She listened to this music at the same time that she spent a winter and summer alongside the listener. It brings to her memories of walking through the streets, listening to bands play, and being in love. 

Her emotions range from utter joy to pain and strife while recalling these times. NO matter what emotion she was feeling, it was strong. She is always able to return to the “rhythm, and lilt, and rhyme” of the composition and find the listener. 

 

Stanza One 

Of all the waltzes the great Strauss wrote,

Mad with melody, rhythm–rife

From the very first to the final note,

Give me his “Artist’s Life”!

In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by introducing the waltz which has inspired her throughout her life. There is no other piece of music that moves her in the way that “Artist’s Life” by the composer Strauss does.(See above for more information about this composition.) The speaker begins her description of this piece of music and impact it has on her by stating that she loves all the works that Strauss produced. Even though they are all filled with “melody” and “rhythm” and even “rife” in some instances, she prefers “his “Artist’s Life”!” 

There is something about this piece of music that “stirs” her more than any other. The following stanzas are devoted to explaining the influence the composition had on her throughout her life. 

 

Stanza Two 

It stirs my blood to my finger ends,

Thrills me and fills me with vague unrest,

And all that is sweetest and saddest blends

Together within my breast.

In the next quatrain the speaker describes how the music “stirs” her. It has an impact on her that consumes her whole body. The feelings start in her “finger ends.” The music goes deep enough to move her blood. This is not as disconcerting a process as it sounds. The speaker states that it is an experience that “Thrills” her and “fills [her] with vague unrest.” Strauss’ composition makes her feel as if she can no longer sit still, there is something she needs to do or somewhere she needs to go. This impulse is “vague” though and something that exists at the back of her mind. 

The speaker’s emotions are so complex while listening to this piece of music that all sweet and sad things come together. They exist within her at the same time. Her “breast,” or chest, (a reference to her heart), contains all the good and bad of life. 

 

Stanza Three

It brings back that night in the dim arcade,

In love’s sweet morning and life’s best prime,

When the great brass orchestra played and played,

And set our thoughts to rhyme.

The music also brings up certain memories of the past. It is one of a “dim arcade” that comes first to her mind.  This refers to a dark passageway with arches along the sides. The arches frame this distinct memory of a “sweet morning.” This day was one of “love.” It existed during the best time of her life. She cannot help but recall the “great brass orchestra” that played around her. 

It is at this point in the poem that she first speaks directly to the listener. Her intended listener shared this memory with her. They were likely her romantic partner. She states that their “thoughts” where set to “rhyme.” All their normal, everyday considerations became poetic. They were elevated. 

 

Stanza Four

It brings back that Winter of mad delights,

Of leaping pulses and tripping feet,

And those languid moon-washed Summer nights

When we heard the band in the street.

The second half of the poem begins with the speaker referencing another memory. This one takes place in a time of “mad delights.” It was the winter of one year and she was engaging in a number of pursuits that were fuelled by passion and happiness. The speaker and her companion are together in this memory as well. They experience the thrills of “leaping pulses and tripping feet.” 

Their emotions take them through their city until they come out on the street under the “languid” or relaxed, “moon-washed Summer night.” The music has taken her back to a period in her life that was filled with love. She connects this particular song to the relationship she has with the listener and all they did together. 

 

Stanza Five 

It brings back rapture and glee and glow,

It brings back passion and pain and strife,

And so of all the waltzes I know,

Give me the “Artist’s Life.”

The fifth stanza lists out some of the emotions she was experiencing during this important time in her life. These emotions are all strong. They are not subdued in any way. First she mentions, “rapture.” In this context the word refers to intense pleasure. She goes on to list out “glee and glow.” Her emotions were elevated and the world around her seemed enhanced. 

There is not only joy in her memory though. There are also moments of “pain and strife.” No relationship is perfect, and the speaker’s is no exception. No matter the difficult times the two went through, the emotions were always strong. They always felt deeply about one another. 

The section concludes with the speaker reiterating the line used in the first stanza. She asks once more that she is always given “the “Artist’s Life.”’ 

 

Stanza Six

For it is so full of the dear old time–

So full of the dear friends I knew.

And under its rhythm, and lilt, and rhyme,

I am always finding—you.

In the last four lines of the poem the speaker concludes her description of what the music contains for her. It holds the “dear old time” the two spent together. There are all the “dear friends” that she knew and cherished. The music is so much more than just a skilful pattern of sounds, it has “you” there. The speaker will always be able to locate her lover, and the days they spent together within the “rhythm, and lilt, and rhyme.” 

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