Summary and Analysis
Born in 1850, Ella Wheeler Wilcox was an American poet and writer best known for her 1883 book, Poems of Passion, which includes her famous poem “Solitude.” Wilcox’s poetry often includes rhyming verse centered around love, life, and death.
Her poem “Protest,” published in 1914, deviates from her usual poetic style and highlights Wilcox’s passions as a feminist and activist. “Protest” delves into issues of free speech and suggests that wealth inequality is at the root of unjust treatment and suffering. The theme of that poem claims that only way to gain true liberty for all is to protest and fight for one’s freedom.
“Protest” relies on free verse and careful word choice. It is comprised of two stanzas. The first stanza consists of fifteen lines; the second, eleven. The poem is in iambic pentameter throughout and uses internal rhyme. “Protest” poses a convincing argument for the usefulness and goodness of free speech.
The First Stanza
Lines one and two of stanza one begin with a powerful assertion: “To sin by silence, when we should protest / Makes cowards out of men.” In these lines, the speaker argues against a lack of protest, claiming that being silent is a cowardly act.
Line three then emphasizes how humanity has “climbed on protest.” The use of the word “climbed” in this line creates an image of humans physically climbing towards better social progress. Furthermore, “climbed” also denotes physical toil or labor, pointing out that although protesting can create better societies, it also requires effort.
In line four, the speaker presents a theoretical situation. The speaker imagines what it would be like if no one protested against “injustice, ignorance, and lust.” The speaker’s imagined outcome is supported using theoretical evidence, which gives the poem a realistic perspective that readers may be more inclined to understand. The words “injustice” and “ignorance” call to mind a lack of justice and knowledge in society while “lust” pertains to the capitalistic and materialistic desires to possess something.
The speaker in line five claims “The inquisition yet would serve the law.” This hearkens to the social and religious repression caused by inquisitions, which were tribunals created by the Catholic Church in order to combat so-called heresy. Inquisitions were known to be prejudiced, cruel, and unjust towards those in minority groups, most often due to religious differences.
In line six, the speaker continues to imagine the negative consequences if no one protested by suggesting that “guillotines decide our least disputes.” The word “guillotines” elicits images of the French Revolution in which the aristocracy was overthrown, which hearkens to one of the poem’s main themes of wealth inequality causing societal issues. The word may also evoke images of violence and brutality, as guillotines were used in cruel circumstances.
The speaker then claims in line seven, “the few who dare, must speak and speak again.” This line uses alliteration, through the repeated “s” sounds, and repetition of the word “speak.” This acts as a parallel to the line's meaning, which claims that protest must be a repeated effort.
In line eight, the speaker suggests that the “few,” as mentioned in line seven, work “to right the wrongs of many.” The “many,” or the privileged majority, serve as a contrast to the “few” who protest and work towards justice for minority groups. The speaker continues with “Speech, thank God,” which expresses gladness for the ability of free speech given to American citizens.
Lines nine and ten then claim that “no vested power in this great day and land” can “gag or throttle” free speech. The adjective “vested” serves to point out that even those in power with guaranteed rights and privileges cannot take free speech away. Furthermore, lines ten and eleven point out that “press and voice may cry / loud disapproval of existing ills.” This conveys...
(The entire section is 1,279 words.)