Louisa May Alcott Poems
Autobiography, Love, Grief, and Whimsy
Who was Louisa May Alcott? Now that's a tricky one! In the introduction to The Poems of Louisa May Alcott, Robert Nelsen suggests that Alcott's poetry may provide more insight into this question than her fiction does. One reason is that her fiction was often driven by financial necessity.
Louisa May Alcott was a prolific fiction writer. She used her talent to support not only herself but family members. She even financed her youngest sister's education. In the time before Little Women, she wrote thrillers under a pen name.
Much of Alcott's poetry, on the other hand, is personal. She wrote it for the same reason that many individuals do: to express feelings about her life, her loved ones, her spiritual beliefs. Some of her poems were given as gifts or tokens of affection. Some were included within works of prose -- not just children's books, but popular adult fare like thrillers.
A few poems received acclaim. Many, though, are read primarily for insights into her life and character. On this page, I will take a few of Alcott's poems, the famous and the not so famous, and relate them to her life. I will also include a bit of audio; I have recorded "The Lay of the Golden Goose", "Thoreau's Flute", and "In the Garrett".
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Veiled Autobiography: The Lay of a Golden Goose - "Long ago in a poultry yard/ One dull November morn..."
"The Lay of a Golden Goose" may describe a world inhabited by talking geese, ducks, and other birds, but it is an autobiographical poem. Louisa was the November-born gosling. She was the goose that was jeered for trying to fly, but did go on to lay a golden egg.
Like the little gosling, Louisa decided early to sally forth. She was given to "running away' in search of adventure. At the age of six, she got lost after a day of adventuring. When she didn't return, the town crier was sent to spread the news of the missing child. Louisa was asleep with her head resting against a strange dog when she heard him and announced herself. (We can imagine this is the sort of thing that might have had the "ducks and geese" clucking away as they commented that their children never did such a thing.)
Young Louisa was a tomboy, given to rough play and not afraid to accept a dare. Some accounts have her father, Bronson Alcott, quite stern with her; others report that both parents used generally gentle means to keep her in check.
It wasn't just Louisa herself, though, who was sometimes held in low regard. It was her whole family. Her father was considered an impractical dreamer, with ideas that didn't work out and couldn't work out. The most notable failure was when he took his young family to establish a Transcendental commune at Fruitlands. (It may well be this experience that Louisa alluded to when she had the owls declare that "no useful egg was ever hatched from Transcendental nest".)
The near starvation alluded to in the poem was real. The family lost what resources they had at Fruitlands and barely made it back. But Louisa declared quite young that she intended to be rich... oh, and famous, too. As a girl, she liked writing plays and acting in them. She dreamed of being a popular actress.
Of course it was her writing that eventually brought her fame. She began selling her work early, and it supplemented the income she earned from more traditional jobs.
With the publication of Little Women, when she was in her 30's, she was catapulted into fame. This was, overall, a very good thing. Her family wasn't going to want again for material needs and comforts. But the fame was more than what Louisa actually wanted. And understandably she felt some negativity toward those who had looked down on her when she was a nobody.
You can read the text of "Lay of a Golden Goose" here.
You can listen to Lay of a Golden Goose here. (This is my own audio recording, hosted on Audioboo.)
Henry David Thoreau was friend to Louisa May Alcott's father Bronson and also to young Louisa. She accompanied him on nature walks when she was but a child. She held him in very high regard up to the time he died, when she was about 30, and afterward.
Louisa May Alcott never married, but she is believed to have had romantic feelings toward several people across her life. In each case, there was a wide difference in their ages. She had, at the least, "an attachment" toward Thoreau. Some suggest she was in love with him.
"Thoreau's Flute" was her expression of grief at his loss. The poem also expressed her belief that "for such as he there is no death". It was published in The Atlantic and was something of a literary accomplishment for a writer who was published, but not yet well known.
You can read the text of "Thoreau's Flute" here.
You can listen to Thoreau's Flute here. (Again, it's on Audioboo.)
Louisa May and Mr. Thoreau's Flute
Did outings with Thoreau inspire Louisa's "inner music"? Louisa May and Mr. Thoreau's Flute takes a look at Louisa's childhood activities and frustrations and culminates with the writing of her first poem.
While the story is fictionalized, it is based on real life. Many primary documents remain. Louisa did indeed write her poem, "To the First Robin", at age eight.
Review of Louisa May and Mr. Thoreau's Flute
- Louisa May Alcott is my Passion
This review was written by a woman who was introduced to the real life Louisa before her fictional characters. No, she's not that old. However, there are some provocative works about this author out there, and she had read them..
Louisa May Alcott's Poems for Her Father
Louisa did see imperfections in Bronson Alcott. The stint at Fruitlands was spoofed in "Transcendental Wild Oats". Here, Louisa is not shy about revealing that it was her mother's resolve and hard work, not her father's, that kept them fed during their time on the commune and ultimately got them home. Deserted by her father's cronies, the family was hard pressed even to find a way back. Bronson himself had given up; he had wanted to die.
But Louisa's anger was toward others, not her father. Overall, she adored him. She died just two days after him. Father and daughter were separated by more than 30 years. He was quite an old man. She herself should have had more years despite having had bouts of chronic illness since her stint as an army nurse in the Civil War.
Louisa's feelings for her father are of course chronicled in poetry. Project Gutenberg has published an ebook of three previously unpublished poems. The ebook begins with a discussion of Fruitlands and what it revealed about both Bronson and Louisa. After that, we find three tributes written by Louisa for her beloved dad.
- The Project Gutenberg eBook of Three Unpublished Poems, by Louisa M. Alcott.
Includes three poems written for Louisa May Alcott about Bronson Alcott.
Louisa's Poem for Her Mother
"Transfiguration" was written after the death of Louisa May Alcott's mother. It expresses the hope and belief that she has been transformed for a new life.
"Transfiguration" is one of the author's more famous poems. It was published in her lifetime.
In the Garret - Four Sisters
Louisa and her three real life sisters were as close as the girls who grew into women in the acclaimed Little Women. The four girls are summed up in their real and fictional forms in two different versions of "In the Garret". The first describes Nan (aka Anna) , Lu, Bess (who was often called Lizzie), and May; the second and much better known version describes Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.
There are many differences between the two poems. Some are probably stylistic, a matter of simply refining the language. Others are necessitated by the plot. In real life, Louisa was separated by more years from her sister May. May married far later in life than the fictitious Amy did. Thus, the stanza about the youngest sister is quite different.
There are differences, too, in how Louisa portrays herself. The more famous Little Women version includes the line,"Be patient, love, and love will come." In the more personal predecessor, the line is grimmer: "Labor and love, but make no moan."
The poem plays a role in the life of fictitious Jo that it doesn't play in Louisa's own life. It brings romance (in the form of Professor Bhaer) into Jo's world.
I read a touch of jealousy in the original for older sister Nan's role as mother. This isn't expressed in the same way in the storybook version.
You can listen to In the Garrett here. Do the poem's length, I have included just five of the six verses. Not recorded is the last verse which ends with the hope that their souls will "gladly soar and sing in the long sunshine after rain".
From "In the Garret"
All copies that I have been able to locate on the internet have been the Little Women version. These stanzas, though, are from the original "In the Garret".
Four little chests all in a row,
Dimmed with dust and gray with time,
Fashioned and filled so long ago
By little maids now in their prime
Four little keys hung side by side
With faded ribbons once so gay,
When fashioned there with childish pride
Long ago on a rainy day.
Four little names,one on each lid,
Carved with skill by a boyish hand,
And there, within, there lieth hid
Histories of the sister band
Once playing here, and pausing oft
To catch the musical refrain,
That came and went on the roof aloft,
In the drip of the summer rain.
"Nan," on the first lid, smooth and far,
And I look on with loving eyes,
For folded here with well-known care
A goodly gathering lies.
The record of a peaceful life;
Treasures of gentle child and girl:
A bridal wreath, gifts to a wife,
A lover's face, a baby's curl.
no toys in this first chest remain,
For they have all been carried away,
In their old age to live again
Under another small Nan's sway.
Ah, happy mother! Well I know
To you there comes no sad refrain
But lullabies ever sweet and low,
In the drip of the summer rain.
Lu (from "In the Garret")
"Lu" on the next lid scratched and worn;
Within is heaped a motley store
Of headless dolls, of school books torn,
Of beasts and birds whose day is o'er.
Dreams of a future never found,
Memories of a past still sweet,
Spoils brought home from the fairy ground,
Only touched by youthful feet.
Half-writ poems and stories wild;
April letters sunny or cold;
The diaries of a wayward child:
Hints of a woman early old.
A woman musing here alone,
Hearing ever her life's refrain:
"Labor and love, but make no moan,"
In the drip of the summer rain.
Bess (from "In the Garret")
My "Bess", the dust is newly swept
Away from your beloved name,
As if by eyes that often wept,
By tender hands that often came.
Death canonized for us one saint,
Meek soul, half human, half divine,
And still we touch with loving plaint
The relics in this household shrine.
The needle once too heavy grown,
The little cap which last she wore,
The sweet Saint Catherine that shone
Through the long nights above the door;
The lamp unlighted since she left
Her fragile prison-house of pain,
The sad lament of those bereft,
In the drip of the summer rain.
The Little Women Version
A Volume of Poetry
You will find some rare poetry in The Poems of Louisa May Alcott. Unfortunately, the book appears to be out of print. There are a lot of used copies out there, though, some pretty cheap. (Just click on the "used" link on Amazon and see who's selling the book and at what price.)
- Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals
This collection was edited in 1889, not long after Alcott's death. It contains many primary source documents: poems as well as correspondence and journal excerpts. This reproduction, from the Internet Archive, is formatted in an unusual way and can
- The Woman Behind Little Women
Here you can find quite a bit of autobiographical information. The site was put up in conjunction with a documentary about Louisa's life.
- The Literature Network
This account of Louisa's early life includes primary source documents.
- Orchard House
Here is general biographical information.
Poetic Whimsy and Fantasy
Louisa May Alcott also wrote whimsical poems with fairies and flowers as characters. Her first published book was made up of fables and poems that she had composed as a teenager to entertain Ralph Emerson's young daughter Ellen. Beat Bubbles, another early collection, includes idyllic and sometimes moralistic seashore-inspired poetry. Poems appeared in serial form in the Saturday Evening Gazette. Morning-Glories and Other Stories, published more than a decade later, again includes a combination of seaside imagery and fantasy.
More Louisa May Alcott Poems for Children
Much of Alcott's poetry, like her prose, was written for children.