Friday, August 29, 2008

Poetry Friday

I am not a poet, nor even much of a reader of poetry, but my research for Women of the Bay State has led me back into the works of Louisa May Alcott. Alcott is not, of course, known for her poetry. Her bread and butter was always her stories for children.From a very young age, however, she wrote poetry. In the poems of her youngest days we see the germ of the great writer she would be come - the eye for detail, the evocation of emotion, the turn of a phrase, along with the inclination to draw a lesson from daily life and then apply it. Obviously we also see conventions of an earlier time -- bear with the author, born and raised in a time so very different from our own!

Consider this cheery bit of philosophy, written when Louisa was about 14:

A Song from the Suds

Queen of my tub, I merrily sing,
While the white foam rises high,
And sturdily wash, and rinse, and wring,
And fasten out the clothes to dry;
Then out in the free fresh air they swing,
Under the sunny sky.

I wish we could wash from our hearts and our souls
The stains of the week away,
And let water and air by their magic make
Ourselves as pure as they;
Then on the earth there would be indeed
A glorious washing day!

Along the path of a useful life
Will heart's-ease ever bloom;
The busy mind has no time to think
Of sorrow, or care, or gloom;
And anxious thoughts may be swept away
As we busily wield a broom.

I am glad a task to me is given
To labor at day by day;
For it brings me health, and strength, and hope,
And I cheerfully learn to say--
"Head, you may think; heart, you may feel;
But hand, you shall work alway!"

Throughout her life Louisa wrote poems in times of powerful emotion. One of her first works published over her own name was a poem she wrote for the John Brown Association commemorating the abolitionist's death. I haven't been able to find a complete text, sadly - it was published in the Liberator in 1860.

I conclude then with a much more sober poem, written in October 1886, when Louisa, already suffering from the long-term effects of mercury poisoning, mourning the loss of her youngest sister May in far-off France. No bright details or perky rhythm here, but still the connection of earthly detail with her philosophical bent, and still the theme of lessons learned:

My Prayer

Courage and Patience, these I ask,
Dear Lord, in this my latest strait;
For hard I find my ten years' task,
Learning to suffer and to wait.

Life seems so rich and grand a thing,
So full of work for heart and brain,
It is a cross that I can bring
No help, no offering, but pain.

The hard-earned harvest of these years
I long to generously share;
The lessons learned with bitter tears
To teach again with tender care;

To smooth the rough and thorny way
Where other feet begin to tread;
To feed some hungry soul each day
With sympathy's sustaining bread.

So beautiful such pleasures show,
I long to make them mine;
To love and labor and to know
The joy such living makes divine.

But if I may not, I will only ask
Courage and patience for my fate,
And learn, dear Lord, thy latest task--
To suffer patiently and wait.

Note: This week's Poetry Friday Round-Up is at Charlotte's Library.


Kelly Fineman said...

I really like the first one - it's similar to the Victorian philosophy about idle hands being the devil's workshop. The second one is so sad.

About The Liberator: Have you considered contacting Horace Seldon, a ranger familiar with the papers, or the collection where the papers are housed? They might be able to scan a copy for you.

Sally said...

Thanks, Kelly! I didn't even know the archive of The Liberator existed. Sadly, I see that he notes that they have not copied most of the poetry-but perhaps I can persuade him to copy that one.

Kelly Fineman said...

I've been stockpiling some Alcott and Alcott-related books for a possible future project, so when I saw your post, I immediately thought "Wait - someone somewhere must have a collection of the Liberator." I tried to search for it in WorldCat, but botched it. Still, a Google Scholar search turned up Mr. Seldon. (I thought it might actually turn up online in Google Scholar or Books, but no luck.)

Anonymous said...

I didn't know Alcott was a poet, so thanks for sharing these. These poems feel both restrained and precise--it was cool to see two such different moods!

FAvorite lines: And anxious thoughts may be swept away/
As we busily wield a broom.