‘The Word‘ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox is a short three-stanza poem that is made up of sets of four lines, or quatrains. These quatrains are regular in their rhyme scheme and length. The second and fourth lines of each quatrain rhyme and the first and third lines of each are slightly longer and end without a rhyme.
Summary of The Word
The speaker begins by listing a number of things that a word can come to represent or stand-in for. From the dropping of a heavy stone, to the smell of a sweet perfume. A single word, like “yes” or “no,” can change someone to the core.
She goes on to say that there are two different ways to speak. One might take their time, like a connoisseur, making sure each word is exactly right, or one can speak spontaneously, and from the heart. The latter is the speaker’s clear preference as she seems to think polishing each word to its maximum will not have the desired outcome.
In the final stanza, she speaks of how a polished word will never come into being the way that a spontaneous one does. The sheer labor that went into it keeps it from meaning quite as much.
Analysis of The Word
Oh, a word is a gem, or a stone, or a song,
Or a flame, or a two-edged sword;
Or a rose in bloom, or a sweet perfume,
Or a drop of gall is a word.
The poem begins with the speaker listing out the ways in which a single word can be interpreted. A word has the power to become anything that the speaker desires, if one puts enough time and effort into its creation and utterance.
The speaker suggests a number of different things that a word can represent or portray. She describes words as being like “gem[s],” or like a stone, “flame, or a two-edged sword.” These descriptions might seem random at first but are quite apt in their use. A single sound can represent something precious to the person that hears it, take for example the word, “yes,” or “no.”
A word can be like a stone in the same way. When it drops it is heavy, dangerous, and final. Or even more interesting, a double-edged sword in which the word might seem to mean one thing but have an ulterior motive on the other side.
On the happier side of things a word can be like a “rose in bloom,” or like some kind of “perfume” and lends itself to sweet memories.
You may choose your word like a connoisseur,
And polish it up with art,
But the word that sways, and stirs, and stays,
Is the word that comes from the heart.
In the second stanza, the speaker directs her thoughts to the listeners and readers. She is in one way, warning them, and in another, proving to them that there are different ways of speaking.
She states that a person is able to “choose” the words they use “like a connoisseur” would choose the best wine or foods. This takes time and a lot of thought. There is nothing rushed about speaking this way. One might even take the time to “polish it up with art.” To add flourishes to make the word or words seem like more than they are. This edges towards deceit and manipulation though, and it is clear in the next lines that this is not how the narrator would have herself or anyone else talk.
The type of conversation that she would prefer is spoken of in the next two lines. She informs the reader that the only words that really mean something are those that come from the heart. These types of conversation “sway, and stir and stay” before they are delivered. They are spontaneous and natural in their delivery and meaning.
You may work on your word a thousand weeks,
But it will not glow like one
That all unsought, leaps forth white hot,
When the fountains of feeling run.
In the last quatrain, she solidifies her position on this matter. She, speaking directly to those that are “connoisseurs” of words, says, “You,” she says, might spend a “thousand weeks” working on the words that “you” want to say, but nothing that labored over can have the “feeling run” through it that words are spoken from the heart do.
Words that are fretted over will “not glow like one / That [is] all unsought.”
About Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Ella Wheeler Wilcox was born in Johnstown Center, Rock County, Wisconsin in November of 1850. It is known that from a young age Wilcox was absorbed in the reading of “popular literature.” This early love of writing and reading led her to publish first pieces at the age of 14. They were published in the New York Mercury. It was soon after that when a number of her poems began to be published in other weekly papers and magazines.
Her first book, Drops of Water, appeared in 1872. It was soon followed by another volume, Shells. After the success of a number of books of poetry, a publisher in Chicago rejected her fourth. This was a collection of love poems that were deemed “immoral.” This rating made it all the more successful among readers. These semi-erotic poems are the work for which Wilcox’s is best known and they established her reputation with over 60,000 copies sold in two years.
In 1884, Wilcox was married, but she continued to write, never becoming anything less than prolific. She published other volumes throughout the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. She also spent time writing fiction, some of her best-known novels are Mal Moulé, and Sweet Danger. Wilcox’s husband died in 1916, and after becoming obsessed with spiritualism and having successfully completed a tour of Allied camps in France, (under her husband’s apparent suggestion,) Wilcox died in 1919.