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Featured Poem: Ambition’s Trail by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Written by Rachael Norris, 19th April 2021

Today's Featured Poem is brought to us by Teaching and Learning Leader, Lizzie Dass. 'Ambition's Trail' by Ella Wheeler Wilcox is a poem from Poems of Power Chicago : W. B. Conkey, 1902.

As April is both #NationalPoetryMonth​ and #StressAwarenessMonth​, the readings we have chosen to share this month all meet the theme of 'balm for the soul'. We hope you'll think about sharing this poem with someone who might need it today.

Over the past year a lot has changed in the way I work, and there was a moment when it felt like Shared Reading, this thing I love might become unrecognisable in the virtual world of zoom…but that ended the minute I had my first virtual group and I brought along this poem to a group of young people.  This was my ‘if I’m feeling brave’ poem, I had another one I was planning to use, but something made me choose this.  As the young people puzzled over the language of the poem and got excited when they made a ‘break through’, one boy offered to read – egged on by his pals.  They started to read, and it was wonderful, and while the feelings of uncertainty didn’t disappear they were joined by feeling of joy and delight.

Ambition’s Trail

 

If all the end of this continuous striving
Were simply to attain,
How poor would seem the planning and contriving
The endless urging and the hurried driving
Of body, heart and brain!

But ever in the wake of true achieving,
There shine this glowing trail –
Some other soul will be spurred on, conceiving,
New strength and hope, in its own power believing,
Because thou didst not fail.

Not thine alone the glory, nor the sorrow,
If thou doth miss the goal,
Undreamed of lives in many a far to-morrow
From thee their weakness or their force shall borrow –
On, on, ambitious soul

 

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

 

Even before I get to the words in the poem I’m caught in the title – trail, trail… is I am thinking about trails in my local woods that lead me further and further into them.  I am also thinking about trails that I leave behind for example walking through fresh snow or, even now as spring emerges, walking on dewy grass.   Is a trail different from a path or a road?  How so?  And what would ‘Ambition’s trail’ look like?

If all the end of this continuous striving
Were simply to attain,

I am always interested in the ‘if’, I start to think, what is the alternative, why is that ‘if’ there?  How does reading (or hearing if you have played the video clip) these words make you feel?  As that phrase ‘continuous striving’ catches me, I’m also struck by that and the word ‘simply’.  There feels like a lot at stake in these were few lines as we are given the verdict by the speaker…’how poor’.

The endless urging and the hurried driving
Of body, heart and brain!

These lines really stood out to me that ‘endless’ and ‘hurried’ energy of the whole self, I can relate to this state.  When we are in it, it feels never ending, however the poem comes in with a ‘but’…

But ever in the wake of true achieving,
There shine this glowing trail –
Some other soul will be spurred on, conceiving,
New strength and hope, in its own power believing,
Because thou didst not fail.

Just in time!  That’s what I was thinking as we came to these lines, did you sense a shift?  I wonder what ‘true achieving’ looks like?  If there is ‘true achieving’ cant here be false achieving?  How do you know the difference? Maybe hindsight, maybe the feelings or gut instinct you have at the time?

‘Some other soul’, these sense of wider connection comes in here, that the ‘wake’ maybe has impacts on people we don’t know or have never even met! ‘Some other soul’ doesn’t seem too personal to me, but you may disagree with me (and that’s okay).

Not thine alone the glory, nor the sorrow,
If thou doth miss the goal,
Undreamed of lives in many a far to-morrow
From thee their weakness or their force shall borrow –
On, on, ambitious soul

As we come to the close, there is this sense of hope, both in success but also even if we ‘miss the goal’.  There seems to be a reaching into the unknown for the source of this hope, the ‘undreamed of lives’ are following us in our wake.  So, as the poem finishes, ‘On, on, ambitious soul’.

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