‘Transfiguration’ by Louisa May Alcott is a personal poem written from the poet’s own perspective. It details her emotions surrounding her mother, Abigail Alcott’s, death and attempts to paint change and death as something beautiful, not something to fear.
The poem is made up of twelve stanzas divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a rhyming pattern of abba, alternating as the poet saw fit throughout the entire text.
A reader should also take note of the way the lines have been structured. The first and fourth lines, which are a rhyming pair, are in each stanza significantly longer than the second and third. Although Alcott has not selected a specific metrical pattern for the text, the coupled lines are similar in the number of syllables they contain.
Summary of Transfiguration
The poem begins with the speaker relaying the basic features of her mother’s life. She was old when she died, and her death came as a relief to all the family members. They knew she no longer had to bear the pain of living on her shoulders and were pleased she was going to heaven.
In the next stanzas, the speaker takes the time to describe who her mother was and why she was such an important person. Abigail Alcott did everything she could to make the best life possible for her children. This included completing deeds which were both mundane and “heroic.”
The poem concludes with the speaker asking that all those listening to seek to live the kind of life that she is now— one that is “royal.” Death should be proud it is able to take one’s soul when that time comes.
Analysis of Transfiguration
Mysterious death! who in a single hour
Life’s gold can so refine
And by thy art divine
Change mortal weakness to immortal power!
In the first stanza of ‘Transfiguration’ the speaker begins by addressing the main subject of her poem, “death!” It is this force and the experiences which revolve around it, that the text will focus on.
She continues on to praise the ability of death to take one’s life and refine it. When one dies, they do not decrease in importance, but grow. Their “mortal weakness” is turned into an “immortal power.” A loved one, such as Alcott’s mother, is not lost to the world but changed for the better.
Bending beneath the weight of eighty years
Spent with the noble strife
of a victorious life
We watched her fading heavenward, through our tears.
In the second stanza, the speaker continues on to describe the life of her mother, Abigail Alcott. Without knowing the contextual details of the poem a reader will not have a clear idea who the woman is the speaker is referring to. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows one to cast their own experiences over those of the narrator.
The speaker is describing the last moments of her mother’s life. Abigail Alcott died when she was “eighty years old” and all of those years weighed on her. Abigail had lived a good life, and with the family around her, she faded into heaven. Although it is clear the family members were moved by the passing of Alcott’s mother, the poet chose not to focus on her sadness.
But ere the sense of loss our hearts had wrung
A miracle was wrought;
And swift as happy thought
She lived again — brave, beautiful, and young.
The third quatrain of ‘Transfiguration’ begins with the speaker acknowledging that their hearts were “wrung” with a sense of loss, but also that they knew a miracle has occurred. It took no effort on the part of God to allow Alcott’s mother to transcend the base mortal world and become something more.
The family knows this is the case and are happy in the thought that she was born again “brave, beautiful, and young.” The mother no longer has to suffer under the weight of her years but is free to live a new immortal life.
Age, pain, and sorrow dropped the veils they wore
And showed the tender eyes
Of angels in disguise,
Whose discipline so patiently she bore.
It is in the fourth stanza that the speaker addresses the positive changes which came over her mother. She lost all the pain and sorrow which comes with age. These features plague one throughout their later life drop away in heaven and reveal the “angels” which were there all along.
It is with these angels that Abigail Alcott lived all her life but now they are no longer “in disguise.” The forces of God and heaven have taken her mother fully into their embrace and surrounded her with a new eternal “tender[ness].”
The past years brought their harvest rich and fair;
While memory and love,
Together, fondly wove
A golden garland for the silver hair.
The poem continues on to describe how the previous years of the mother’s life had proceeded. They were filled with “harvest[s]” which were “rich and fair.” These times created memories the speaker holds close to her heart. They also wove for Abigail, a “golden garland for the silver hair.”
The final years of Abigail Alcott life were so joyous, as everyone knew she’d soon be going to heaven. This fact topped off all the prior, tougher, years. They were the crowning days of this much-loved woman’s life.
How could we mourn like those who are bereft,
When every pang of grief
found balm for its relief
In counting up the treasures she had left?–
The speaker returns to her initial thoughts regarding death in this stanza. She asks her listeners how the family could possibly be sad, “like those who are bereft.” The Alcott family is not like those who truly suffer a loss, as their grief is relieved with a “balm.” No member of the family has sunk into depression as they are easily able to recall the happy memories they shared with the mother.
Faith that withstood the shocks of toil and time;
Hope that defied despair;
Patience that conquered care;
And loyalty, whose courage was sublime;
At the halfway point of ‘Transfiguration’, the speaker delves into the personal attributes of her mother. These are things that she deeply admires and would clearly like to emulate in her own life. The mother had a “Faith” that would withstand any hardship that “time” could throw at it. Her belief in God and her family never wavered.
This leads to the “loyalty” that knew no bounds. It was increased by Abigail Alcott’s “courage.” She was unafraid to remain loyal to those she loved. Additionally, the speaker states that her mother was filled with “Hope.” She spent no time despairing the darker incidents of life.
The great deep heart that was a home for all–
Just, eloquent, and strong
In protest against wrong;
Wide charity, that knew no sin, no fall;
It was the mother’s “great deep heart” that was the true home of the family. They were all welcome there, as were any the mother came into contact with. Alcott’s mother was both “eloquent and strong.” Her heart was unafraid to “protest against” any wrongs she saw in the world.
The eighth quatrain concludes with Alcott stating that Abigail’s heart knew “Wide charity.” She was willing to help anyone who came to her. Within her heart, there was “no sin” and “no fall” from God’s grace.
The spartan spirit that made life so grand,
Mating poor daily needs
With high, heroic deeds,
That wrested happiness from Fate’s hard hand.
At the beginning of the ninth stanza the mother is described as having a strong, or “spartan” spirit. It was this feature of her personality which helped to make Alcott’s life “so grand.” There was no task too great, or a “daily need” too menial that was not met by Abigail Alcott. Her deeds were both mundane and “heroic.”
The speaker states that the mother’s determination to make a good life for her family was so strong that she took control from Fate. She was the one who chose happiness for herself and her children.
We thought to weep, but sing for joy instead,
Full of the grateful peace
That follows her release;
For nothing but the weary dust lies dead.
‘Transfiguration’ starts its conclusion in the tenth stanza with the speaker addressing the fact that the family considered weeping after the mother’s death. But rather than mourning, they decided to feel “joy instead.” They were “grateful” for the role Abigail played in their lives, and the “release” she was able to experience in death.
The family members do not see death as being something painful, as no one really truly dies. The only things that die are the most weary pieces of “dust.”
Oh, noble woman! never more a queen
Than in the laying down
Of sceptre and of crown
To win a greater kingdom, yet unseen;
Alcott’s mother is referred to as a “noble woman” in the eleventh quatrain. She was glorious all throughout her life, but no more so than when she died. The mother was a “queen” all her days and when she was “laying down” she went on to “win a greater kingdom” and become an even more powerful woman.
Teaching us how to seek the highest goal,
To earn the true success —
To live, to love, to bless —
And make death proud to take a royal soul.
The last four lines of ‘Transfiguration’ attempt to relay the lessons the speaker has learned since her mother’s death. She now knows how to “seek the highest goal” that life can offer.
It will be her goal throughout her own life, and she hopes the lives of her listeners, to earn success through a life well-lived. One must “make death proud” that it is able to “take a royal soul” when that time comes.