August 7, 2013

Alcott: A Golden Goose (and a phoenix)

Weary after the sudden success of Little Women after years of hard work as a writer, Louisa May Alcott traveled to Europe with her sister May Alcott and a friend. The trip was in part for rest but also because she found her new celebrity status more than a bit burdensome. In Bex, Switzerland on August 7, 1870, she wrote to Thomas Niles, her agent for the Roberts Brothers publishing house, that she was still receiving multiple requests for contributions. "I am truly grateful," she told him, "but having come abroad for rest I am not inclined to try the treadmill till my year's vacation is over." Instead, Alcott offered Niles a poem which she called "a trifle in rhyme," which she said would serve "as a general answer to everybody." The poem, "The Lay of a Golden Goose," is among her most autobiographical works (and the title is a pun; "lay" is a synonym for "poem"):

Long ago in a poultry yard
One dull November morn,
Beneath a motherly soft wing
A little goose was born.

Who straightway peeped out of the shell
To view the world beyond,
Longing at once to sally forth
And paddle in the pond.

"Oh! be not rash," her father said,
A mild Socratic bird;
Her mother begged her not to stray
With many a warning word.

But little goosey was perverse,
And eagerly did cry,
"I've got a lovely pair of wings,
Of course I ought to fly."

The poem obviously references Alcott's own upbringing and the influence of her parents, but it also references her lack of success before Little Women. Owl characters in the poem note, "No useful egg was ever hatched / From transcendental nest." But the little goose was determined and soon is able to fly. Here, the poem directly addresses Niles, who inspired and pushed Alcott to write the book that became her most famous:

At length she came unto a stream
Most fertile of all Niles,
Where tuneful birds might soar and sing
Among the leafy isles.

Here did she build a little nest
Beside the waters still,
Where the parental goose could rest
Unvexed by any bill.

And here she paused to smooth her plumes,
Ruffled by many plagues;
When suddenly arose the cry,
"This goose lays golden eggs."

At the revelation of the goose's golden eggs, her previous critics, including fellow fowl, change their tune and begin praising the awkward little goose ("Rare birds have always been evoked / From transcendental nests!"). In fact, her newly converted supporters demanded she keep laying more and more golden eggs. After a while, however, she refused:

So to escape too many friends,
Without uncivil strife,
She ran to the Atlantic pond
And paddled for her life.

Soon up among the grand old Alps
She found two blessed things,
The health she had so nearly lost,
And rest for weary limbs.

But still across the briny deep
Couched in most friendly words,
Came prayers for letters, tales, or verse,
From literary birds.

Whereat the renovated fowl
With grateful thanks profuse,
Took from her wing a quill and wrote
This lay of a Golden Goose.

Despite her promises to herself, however, Alcott did find time to write during her vacation. While she was in Rome, she completed the sequel to her book, Little Men. Still, she also enjoyed the rest she so desperately desired. In the same letter to Niles, she concluded, "I am rising from my ashes in a most phoenix-like manner."


  1. I wish she could have imagined a character who lived out her life as she did. Nevertheless, she's right that in success the critics rush to admire what they previously ignored or disdained.