Known as both “The
Hoosier Poet” and “The Children’s Poet,”
James Whitcomb Riley was one of America’s most popular
poets and orators in the early 1900s, thanks to sentimental,
local color poems like “Little Orphant Annie”
and “When the Frost Is on the Punkin.”
Born in 1849 in the village of Greenfield,
Indiana, which was then nestled in an oak and poplar forest
east of Indianapolis, Riley was the son of a lawyer who discouraged
young James’ inclination to write poetry as being “too
visionary” (Riley 1: 8). Nevertheless, his professional
writing career began when he became literary editor for the
Greenfield newspaper and filled the pages with his own poetry.
While working for The Anderson Democrat
in 1877, Riley carried out his famous hoax of passing off
a poem of his own, “Leonanie,” as a Poe creation.
He lost his job and became the target of sharp criticism among
literary circles across the nation.
Two years later, Riley’s luck turned when
he was given a position at The Indianapolis Journal.
By 1883, his first collection of poems, most of them written
in the dialect of rural Indiana folk, was published as The
Old Swimmin’ Hole and ‘Leven More Poems.
Riley quickly became an enormously popular poet
and perhaps even more popular reader of his poems at public
recitations. From 1910 to 1915, Hoosiers were obsessed with
their favorite son, regaling him with public celebrations
of his birthday, various civic and statewide proclamations
of “Riley Day,” and the governor’s declaration,
in 1915, that he was their “most beloved citizen.”
By his death in 1916, Riley had written more than 1,000 poems
and two dozen prose sketches of acquaintances.
While nature appears as a prominent subject in
much of Riley’s poetry, he often treats it in generalized
terms, celebrating flowers (e.g., "The Rose”),
insects (“Two Sonnets to the June-Bug”), amphibians
(“The Frog”), birds (“The Jaybird”),
seasons (“Knee-Deep in June”), and so forth. He
sometimes alludes to nature in classical myth (“A Glimpse
of Pan”), and often presents nature as the background
of a happy childhood (“The All-Golden”), but in
most such poems he does not comment specifically on Indiana’s
Yet in a wide range of poems Riley does paint
pictures of Indiana’s natural world as it existed during
his lifetime, and at the same time he conveys a range of environmental
In “A Country
(read full text), for example,
he takes the reader along dreamy, irresistible wanderings,
mile after mile, through roadside weeds, meadow, pasture,
creek, and woodland,
with specific descriptions of the sights along the way.
“Time of Clearer
Twitterings” describes childhood experiences
in nature with references to specific plant and animal life:
a “spotted water-snake,” bittern,
crane, and chipmunk; sycamores, a “hazel thicket,”
and a shellbark hickory in an “almost pathless wood”;
pennyroyal, the fruit of “black haws” (hawthorns),
and “a ripe May-apple,” eaten as a molten, “pulpy
lump of gold” (4: 1051-53).
The superiority of country
living over town living is touted by the speaker of “Town
and Country,” in which a nephew, while living
in town, “jest natchurly pined, night and day, / Fer
a sight of the woods,
er a acre of ground / Whare the trees wasent all cleared away!”
Town-dwelling children, who “don’t know a bird-song,
/ Ner a hawk from a chicky-dee-dee,” are chided to return
to nature and the happiness it brings (6: 1483-84).
home, for 23 years, on Lockerbie St. in Indianapolis
contrast, according to “The Hoosier Folk-Child,”
a childraised in Indiana’s countryside “owns the
bird-songs of the hills— / The laughter of the April
rills” and bears all the jewels of nature (6: 1556).
One such child shows up in a prose sketch of a local personality,
entitled “The Judkins Papers.”
The boy in the sketch, already a budding naturalist, reflects
on spiders, mud turtles, and frogs, though not always with
great insight. He notes, for instance, that frogs "is
the people’s friend, but they can’t fly”
In “A Child’s
(read full text), the speaker scans
the pioneers’ transformation of Indiana from forested
wilderness to farmland.
This “broad expanse of fair and fertile land,”
he comments, was, before human intervention, “but a
blot / Of ugly pigment on a barren spot—/ A blur of
color on a hueless ground / Where scarce a hint of beauty
could be found.” Two stanzas later, the poem presents
a brawny pioneer who stands, happily, "with his vision
backward turned / To where the log-heap
of the past was burned.” Yet this stanza, in contrast
to the poem's earlier sentiments, describes pre-settlement
Indiana in idyllic terms, as a “magnificent expanse
/ Of nameless grandeur,” a “sleeping wilderness”
that is blessed by the trees (2: 289-96).
When Riley examines human
relationships with nature, he occasionally reveals an ethic
that ultimately subjugates humans to natural forces, as is
the case in “The Wind,” in which
a personified wind declares, as the poem’s refrain,
“I am the Wind, and I rule mankind...” (1: 222-28).
rarely seen viewpoint in Riley's poems, however, is the admiration
of industrialization's superiority over nature. The speaker
of “The Iron Horse” celebrates
the locomotive as a “gallant steed” that “is
of nobler blood,” / And cleaner limb and fleeter speed,
/ And greater strength and hardihood” than an Arabian
horse (1: 140-42). In an equally rare instance, Riley portrays
an element of nature in fearsome terms: the speaker of “The
Bat” addresses a bat as a “dread, uncanny
thing,” as the “Devil’s self, or brat, at
least” (3: 830).
though, Riley’s verse asserts the joys of nature in
Indiana, in contrast to exotic, faraway sights. Twice the
speaker in “On the Banks o’ Deer Crick”
Well!—I never seen the ocean ner I never
seen the sea.—
On the banks o’ Deer Crick’s grand enough for
me! (5: 1146-47)
Likewise, according to “The
Poems Here at Home,” Hoosiers want poems about
their own simple surroundings, about the “out-doors,
/ And old crick-bottoms, snags, and sycamores”; about
“pizen-vines, and underbrush, / As well as Johnny-jump-ups.”
The speaker further instructs Indiana poets, “Putt in
old Nature’s sermonts,—them’s the best,—
/ And ‘casion’ly hang up a hornets’ nest,”
to teach the lesson that “even insec’s has their
rights!” (6: 1588-89).
Throughout a career devoted to Indiana, Riley's
deep love of the natural world often took center stage in
his poetry. While sometimes whimsical and often sentimental,
such commentary provides a rich glimpse into Indiana's natural
landscapes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Dickey, Marcus. The Youth of James Whitcomb
Riley. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1919.
---. The Maturity of James Whitcomb
Riley. Indianapolis: Bobbs- Merrill, 1922.
Riley, James Whitcomb. James Whitcomb
Riley's Complete Works, Including Poems and Prose Sketches, Many
of which Have Not Heretofore Been Published. Memorial ed. Vols.
1-10. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1916.
Van Allen, Elizabeth J. James
Whitcomb Riley: A Life. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1999.
---. My Life with Riley. 2000.
Indiana Historical Society. 10 Oct. 2002 <www.indianahistory.org/pub/traces/jwrlife.html>.
In Riley. Vol. 1. Frontispiece.
5 Nov. 2002. <http://home.earthlink.net/~technoid47448/Lockerbie.html>
James Whitcomb Riley (includes links to Complete Works
of James Whitcomb Riley, vols. 1 and 10)
Appeal of James Whitcomb Riley (see link to "1948
proclamation" for governor's declaration of James Whitcomb
Riley Centennial Year)
Indiana Historical Society links (for other
resources on Riley, go to the IHS
website and search for "James Whitcomb Riley"):
James Whitcomb Riley.Com
James Whitcomb Riley Old House and Museum
for James Whitcomb Riley, Young Poet