It would be hard for me to find a more perfect subject for The Inaugural Thoreau-Back Thursday Post than the poem “Thoreau’s Flute.” The poem is generally considered one of Louisa May Alcott’s finest, and that may well be true, but I love even more the story of its publication for all the Concordian connections it makes. So, first the poem and then the story.
We, sighing, said, “Our Pan is dead;
His pipe hangs mute beside the river; —
Around his wistful sunbeams quiver,
But Music’s airy voice is fled.
Spring mourns as for untimely frost;
The bluebird chants a requiem;
The willow-blossom waits for him; —
The Genius of the wood is lost.”
Then from the flute, untouched by hands,
There came a low, harmonious breath:
“For such as he there is no death; —
His life the eternal life commands;
Above man’s aims his nature rose:
The wisdom of a just continent,
And tuned to poetry Life’s prose.
“Haunting the hills, the stream, the wild,
Swallow and aster, lake and pine,
To him grew human or divine, —
Fit mates for this large-hearted child.
Such homage Nature ne’er forgets,
And yearly on the coverlid
’Neath which her darling lieth hid
Will write his name in violets.
“To him no vain regrets belong,
Whose soul, that finer instrument,
Gave to the world no poor lament,
But wood-notes ever sweet and strong.
O lonely friend! he still will be
A potent presence, though unseen, —
Steadfast, sagacious, and serene:
Seek not for him, — he is with thee.”
The way this poem makes it into publication give us insight into the intimate connections between so many of Concord’s Transcendental families. You know the old adage write what you know? It’s hard to find a better example than Louisa May Alcott. Everything she ever wrote was in some way a direct example or hopeful reimagining of he life experience. Consequently, the elegiac tone of “Thoreau’s Flute” is totally from the heart. Thoreau was Lousia’s teacher, mentor, girlhood crush, and hero. After Thoreau’s death in May of 1862 Alcott would champion his memory and work the rest of her life. This poem is probably her first success to that end.
It was first drafted by Louisa May Alcott in Washington D.C. while she was attending to wounded and dying Union soldiers. In May of 1863 Louisa records in her journal: “Had a fresh feather in my cap; for Mrs. Hawthorne showed Fields “Thoreau’s Flute,” and he desired it for the “Atlantic.” Of course I did n’t say no. It was printed, copied, praised, and glorified; also paid for, and being a mercenary creature, I liked the $10 nearly as well as the honor of being ” a new star ” and ” a literary celebrity.”
Though this quote only references Mrs. Hawthorne and Fields there is a third figure who should be mentioned first — Emerson. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the several literary founders of The Atlantic. Now it’s fair to ask why didn’t she just show it to him and skip Mrs. Hawthorne. From what I understand that really wasn’t Lousia style, and there is a good chance Emerson was off on some grand lecture tour. Besides if she did I couldn’t tell you about Mrs. Hawthorn.
Mrs. Hawthorne was born Sophia Peabody and had become an artist of acclaim before marrying Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sophia’s oldest sister Elizabeth Peabody had first taught with Louisa’s father Bronson Alcott at The Temple School. She later owned Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s West Street Bookstore in Boston. There Margrett Fuller (editor of The Dial) would hold her “Conversations” and Transcendentalism was a norm. Later, Elizabeth would serve as the business manager for The Dail. In 1860 she would open the first English language Kindergarten in America. Sophia’s middle sister Mary Tyler Peabody Mann had, by this time, also taught at The Temple School, successfully published textbooks and The Flower People: Being an Account of the Flowers by Themselves, marry and champion fellow education reformer Horace Mann–who would go onto serve in the U. S. House of Representatives and become the first President of Antioch College. So the Peabodys even when they are Hawthorns or Manns are members of the Concordian Transcendental royal court.
James T. Fields, not a Concordian or a member of the court, is a different story. Lousia had already been published more than one short story in The Atlantic under editor it’s first editor James Russell Lowell. When Fields assumed the editorship in 1861 he rejected her work, saying, “Stick to your teaching; you can’t write.” He went so far as to lend her forty dollars to establish a school.
So let’s recap, we are gifted with “Thoreau’s Flute” today because a grieving Louisa May Alcott penned the lines while nursing Union Soldiers resulting from some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Months later she shows it to her family friend Sophia Peabody, who just happens to be married to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sophia, in turn, shows it to Fields. Upon reading it James T. Fields has to immediately accept he as an editor was wrong and Louisa May Alcott can actually write. On top of this, he gives her another $10 for its publication in The Atlantic. The Atlantic which Emerson, her other teacher, mentor, girlhood crush, and hero had helped found.
It’s a funny town, Concord. Everything there seems to be interconnected.
Maria S. Porter recalls in “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Robert Browning” Soon after the publication of the poem Bronson Alcott was visiting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Cambridge. Longfellow, also an original investor in The Atlantic offers to read Branson “Emerson’s fine poem on Thoreau’sFlute“. Authors were not credited for their poems in The Atlantic at this time. Lousia would later record in her journal: “Do you wonder that I felt as proud as a peacock when father came home and told me?” I like to believe it meant a lot more to her than the $10.