Sunday, February 10, 2019

How Should We Read Louisa May Alcott's Poetry?

More than 130 years after her death, Louisa May Alcott is still one of the best-selling American authors of her generation, in large part thanks to her Little Women. This novel has been adapted twice in the last year alone, with yet another retelling due to be released later this year. Its perennial popularity has in large part determined Alcott's reputation: she is regarded, almost exclusively, as a sentimental novelist for girls. Though her gothic novels are back in print (even as many of her girls' novels go out of print), for most readers she remains Jo March's historical alter ego. 

I've read everything Alcott ever wrote that has been printed - all the novels, some of the letters and journals (many have not survived and a definitively complete collection of such materials is still not available), the vast majority of her short stories and novellas, her handful of autobiographical pieces... and her poetry. Though Alcott published a few poems in her lifetime and provided a fair number to be recited or sung at philanthropic events, her poetry tends to be totally marginalized in any assessment of her oeuvre. Is that a bad thing? 

To answer that question, one must consider what purpose these poems had for Louisa herself. In the pamphlet released by Orchard House, which collected the extant poems from numerous sources, from archives and manuscripts to the published novels, there are forty four poems. They are arranged chronologically, with the exception of "Love," which is undated, but by my estimation was certainly written in adulthood. It is striking, however, to see how few of these poems were written to be published as distinct works. A high percentage of the poems were written to accompany birthday or Christmas gifts. There are memorial poems that mourn both family members and friends - her most famous poem, "Thoreau's Flute," is among these. However, her best-known poem is almost certainly "Our Angel in the House," which she wrote originally after her sister Beth had died and later embedded in Little Women as the fictional Jo's elegy for the fictional Beth. While many of the juvenile poems are focused on nature - there are poems about robins, sunsets, and winter - or moral struggles to be good, in later life, the majority of the poems seem to have been written for specific events, for instance a meeting of the Concord Women's Club or a visit to the Newsboys' Home.

The poems that are most surprising and most fun, however, are the poems she wrote in mockery. Louisa had a wicked sense of humor, which she gleefully turned on herself as well as other people. In "Parody on the Graves of a Household," she impishly mourns the teeth she lost before she got dentures. In "The Downward Road," she and her sister May are "Yankee maids of simple mien" disgusted by the food they encounter in France, only to be entirely converted to "eels, mushrooms, pickled toad." In the end, they don't want to go home because the "Yankee" food is so bad! In "A Song from the Suds," which also ended up as one of Jo March's poems, she parodies the sort of ode usually made to more exalted forms of labor by celebrating "a glorious washing day."

Louisa's talents shine most brightly in these comic poems, and in none more so than "The Lay of the Golden Goose." In this fable-as-autobiography, Louisa tells the story of a scapegrace gosling who is shunned and tut-tutted by all the other fowls, until, when she grows up, she starts to lay golden eggs. Then all the birds who had once despised her hound the goose for more and more golden eggs of a literary sort. In the end, "So, to escape too many friends,/Without uncivil strife,/She ran to the Atlantic pond/And paddled for her life." By the end of the poem - one of her longest - the goose has recovered somewhat, but is settling down to produce more golden eggs. 

"The Lay of the Golden Goose" was not, as far as I'm aware, published during Alcott's lifetime. It reveals a great deal about how she regarded herself, both as an odd duck (ha!) in society and as a writer. Her "perverse" eccentricities and attempts to fly out into the wider world are cast as absurd, but they are also essential for the goose to contrive to settle down to lay her golden eggs. Louisa never tamed her rebellious streak, though she often attempted to tamp down her wilder impulses, and she was also, in contemporary terms, a workaholic. She worked intensely and at length, so much so that she nearly crippled her hand from gripping the pen for so many hours. She achieved her aim of supporting herself and her family, without recourse to marriage, but she paid for it dearly. Alcott seems to have loathed being famous - in Jo's Boys, she has her fictional alter ego, now a successful authoress, climbing out of the window to avoid autograph-seekers. This autobiography, though whimsical and comic, tells the story of someone who has never felt accepted or acceptable, who has attained worldly success, but finds the rewards dubious and the burdens heavy, and who, despite exhaustion, cannot shake a compulsion to respond to demands for more work.

I rank this poem and some of the others published in the pamphlet, especially the unexpectedly moving "Beds," "A Song from the Suds," "To My Brain," and the undated "Love," as worthy of critical praise. These poems can easily bear the weight of analysis. However, an issue remains: how do we read poems that were meant only for the intimate eyes of a few? We can do as I have done and sidestep the question, simply analyzing without fussing about the intended readership. But, in the case of Alcott's poetry, it seems better to remember where each of the poems in the pamphlet has been extracted from. Alcott never published a volume of verse; this posthumous collection, gleaned from so many sources, does not so much reveal her range as a poet as it reveals the many diverse uses for which Louisa wrote poems. It perhaps helps to think of the pamphlet as a scrapbook, rather than a collection of poetry, or to borrow from her own "In the Garret," as a set of "little chests.../Dim with dust and worn by time." In this way, the pamphlet does not so much contain a collection of poems as it does an eight-year-old's sketch of a robin, the card that accompanied a pair of slippers, a rose in memory of John Brown, a birthday cake, a Christmas carol, and many other small survivors of a rich life lived long ago.