An Anthem Against Silence: Amanda Palmer Reads Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s Piercing and Prescient 1914 Protest Poem
“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.”
By Maria Popova
UPDATE: This poem’s catalytic role in the awakening of the modern environmental conscience factors into my book Figuring.
“Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” biologist Rachel Carson wrote to her most beloved friend as she was about to catalyze the modern environmental movement with the 1962 publication of Silent Spring.
My recent immersion in Carson’s world and her breathtaking correspondence with Dorothy Freeman led me down a curious path that circled back to our present moment with astonishing pertinence. In a letter to Freeman penned exactly ninety days before the release of Silent Spring, as Carson was coming to terms with the irreversible bravery of breaking her silence about the destruction of nature and the government’s attendant heedlessness, she shared a quotation that had bolstered her courage to speak out:
To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.
The words reached across time to strike me with their extraordinary relevance today, and I set out to find their source. Literature being the original internet, as I’ve long believed, Carson’s letter became a de facto “hyperlink” to another text — the words she cited, though frequently misattributed to Abraham Lincoln, turned out to be the opening lines of a piercing poem titled “Protest” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (November 5, 1850–October 30, 1919), from her 1914 book Poems of Problems (public domain | public library), written at the peak of the Women’s Suffrage movement and just as WWI was about to erupt.
A mighty and mobilizing anthem against silence, the poem stands as an anthem for our own time. So I asked my friend and fellow poetry-lover Amanda Palmer to record a reading of this timeless, timely masterpiece as an installment in our ongoing collaboration on poetry readings. (Previously: “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska.)
Amanda herself was so moved by the words that she invited her friend Jherek Bischoff — the brilliant composer and multi-instrumentalist with whom she collaborated on their David Bowie tribute — to set the words to music. The piece that buoys the poem is titled “Closer To Closure,” from Jherek’s entrancing album Cistern. Please enjoy:
To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.
Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.
I’d be remiss not to mention that Amanda’s music, like my own work, is supported by donations. At a time when a ruthless administration seems intent on defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, supporting artists with our own patronage is a critical force of resistance and protest. So please join me in supporting Amanda on Patreon and supporting Jherek by buying his enchanting records.
Published January 31, 2017