Louisa May Alcott’s ‘A.B.A.’ describes how her father lived his life. He was a good man, someone who cared for others before himself, until the day he died.
‘A.B.A.’ is dedicated to Amos Bronson Alcott, Alcott’s father, who was also a writer. He worked as a teacher and is remembered today for his social beliefs. For example, his advocacy for a vegan diet, abolitionism, and women’s rights. Much of his life is referenced in the lines of this poem.
Summary of A.B.A.
Throughout the first lines of ‘A.B.A.,’ the speaker spends time talking about how her father started his life as a wandering pilgrim seeking out knowledge and experiences. What he learned he conveyed to others, taking pleasure in the act of teaching and willing to share everything he could. As he aged, he remained the same good man he was in his youth. Her father died with Patience and Peace at his side, caring for him as he cared for them throughout his days.
Alcott engages with the theme of life in ‘A.B.A.’ Specifically, she’s interested in analyzing her father’s life in order to understand and convey what a “good life” looks like.
Throughout the poem, Alcott speaks only positively about her father, Amos, and how he lived his life. She depicts him as a kindly pilgrim, not unlike Christ, who travelled, learned, and wanted nothing more than to help those around him. Although the world didn’t always reciprocate his love and care, he persevered and died a happy, contented man.
Structure and Form
‘A.B.A’ by Louisa May Alcott is a five-stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves follow a rhyme scheme of ABCBDEFE, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The lines follow a consistent metrical pattern of alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter. The majority of these are made up of iambs, one of the best examples in the poem is the third line of the first stanza.
Alcott makes use of several literary devices in ‘A.B.A..’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and allusion. The latter is a common device used in poetry to reference something that’s not explicitly stated in the lines. The A.B.A. in the title is an allusion to Alcott’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, and the lines that follow are dedicated to him and the life he lived.
Enjambment is a formal device, one that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of stanza four.
Alliteration is a type of repetition that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, “pilgrim” and “pack” in line one of the first stanza as well as “Faithful,” “fond,” and “few” in line six of the second stanza.
Analysis of A.B.A.
Like Bunyan’s pilgrim with his pack,
Forth went the dreaming youth
To seek, to find, and make his own
Wisdom, virtue, and truth.
Life was his book, and patiently
He studied each hard page;
By turns reformer, outcast, priest,
Philosopher and sage.
In the first lines of ‘A.B.A.,’ the speaker begins by referring to her father, who she compares to Paul Bunyan, traveling with a pack on his back and dreams in his head. Her father went out to “find” and made his own life. On his journeys, which are likely a reference to his first career as a travelling salesman, he sought out “Wisdom, virtue, and truth.” He learned about life just as one read a book and studied “each hard page” (a great example of a metaphor). The last two lines of this stanza allude broadly to Alcott’s father’s various professions throughout his life. He is remembered today as “reformer, outcast, priest, / Philosopher and sage.” It’s clear from the first lines that Alcott has an entirely favorable opinion of her father.
Christ was his Master, and he made
His life a gospel sweet;
Plato and Pythagoras in him
Found a disciple meet.
The noblest and best his friends,
Faithful and fond, though few;
Eager to listen, learn, and pay
The love and honor due.
In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker praises her father’s faithfulness and how he made his life like a “gospel.” He lived well, studied the classics, and found good friends. All in all, it appears he lived a good life and made sure he always listened when he needed to and learned all his life.
Power and place, silver and gold,
He neither asked nor sought;
Only to serve his fellowmen,
With heart and word and thought.
A pilgrim still, but in his pack
No sins to frighten or oppress;
But wisdom, morals, piety,
To teach, to warn and bless.
The third stanza begins with a good example of alliteration with “power and place.” These words inform the reader that the poet’s father didn’t care about either, nor did he give any value to “silver and gold.” He didn’t ask for these things, nor did he ever seek them out. His only goal in life was to learn and serve his “fellowmen.” The poet admires the life he led, and it’s likely that she sought to lead a similar one.
No matter how old he got, he was still that same man with his pack on his back, journeying throughout life, seeking out new experiences and meeting new people. He didn’t care about sins in his bag, only wisdom, and morals.
The world passed by, nor cared to take
The treasure he could give;
Apart he sat, content to wait
And beautifully live;
Unsaddened by long, lonely years
Of want, neglect, and wrong,
His soul to him a kingdom was,
Steadfast, serene, and strong.
In the second to last stanza of ‘A.B.A.,’ the speaker goes on to describe how the world treated her father, not as well as she might’ve liked. But, despite the fact that he was alone, he was “content to wait” and live his life as he chose. He was not saddened by the lonely years of his life nor of the “neglect.” His soul was enough for him. Alcott uses another metaphor to compare his soul to a strong kingdom in which he was happy to reside.
Magnanimous and pure his life,
Tranquil its happy end;
Patience and peace his handmaids were,
Death an immortal friend.
For him no monuments need rise,
No laurels make his pall;
The mem’ry of the good and wise
Outshines, outlives them all.
In the final stanza of ‘A.B.A.,’ the speaker describes how her father’s life ended as it began, tranquility and well. He died as helped with “Patience and peace” at his side. Death was not feared but welcomed as an “immortal friend” that shepherded him to his next life.
This poem is the perfect monument for her father. It’s all he would’ve wanted. No grand buildings or structures should be created in his honor. His goodness and wisdom would outlast them all anyway.
Readers who enjoyed ‘A.B.A.’ should also consider reading another of Louisa May Alcott’s other best-known poems. For example:
- ‘Transfiguration’ – is a personal poem written, again, from the poet’s perspective. It details her emotions around the death of her mother, making this an interesting companion piece to ‘A.B.A.’
Some other poems of interest might be:
- ‘my father moved through dooms of love’ by E.E. Cummings – is a personal elegy that Cummings wrote about his father and the life he lived.
- ‘Elegy for My Father’s Father’ by James K. Baxter – is about death and loss, as well as the importance of ancestry.
- ‘Father to Son’ by Elizabeth Jennings – depicts an interesting father/son relationship that isn’t without its struggles.