James Whitcomb Riley Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Ordinarily one would be ill-advised to attempt to offer a broad statement concerning 1,044 poems. In James Whitcomb Riley’s case, however, his poetic undertakings were so limited in subject, treatment, and style that it is indeed possible to make generalizations about them. Most of his poems fall into one or more of the following categories: pastoralized treatments of life in rural America, sentimentalized renderings of the relationships between family members or friends, and equally sentimentalized evocations of childhood. As illustrations of these three categories, one might consider “When the Frost Is on the Punkin,” “Knee-Deep in June,” “Nothin’ to Say,” “The Old Man and Jim,” “The Raggedy Man,” “Little Orphant Annie,” and “The Old Swimmin’-Hole.”

“When the Frost Is on the Punkin”

In an age when many Americans have never seen frost on a pumpkin—or, for that matter, pumpkin not in a pie—it is rather remarkable that the title of Riley’s “When the Frost Is on the Punkin” is still in circulation, even if the poem itself is largely forgotten. Clearly working within the venerable tradition of the harvest poem (John Keats’s “To Autumn” is a sterling example), Riley has so generalized and so de-emotionalized the potentially rich subject of the country autumn that the poem is strikingly charmless. Predictably, the air is “appetizin’” and the morning is “crisp and sunny”; the obligatory rooster crows his obligatory “hallylooyer”; and the requisite apples are “poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps,” dutifully ready to be made into cider and applesauce. Vague catalogs of stock autumnal delights, however, together with the overdone repetition of “When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,” and the patently sentimental conclusion that any “Angels wantin’ boardin’” would be more than happy to live in the country at harvest-time, simply cannot salvage the poem. To a nation that was still essentially rural—or, more important, which perceived itself as such—the bland catalogs probably struck deep emotional chords, but to modern readers, all that remains of one of Riley’s most famous poems is the fundamentally meaningless title.

“Knee-Deep in June”

Not all Riley’s poems feature the flurry of farm activity depicted in “When the Frost Is on the Punkin.” The other side of Riley’s brand of rural American life—the “mild Bohemianism” and “fatuousness” that Donald Pizer has cited as characteristic of Riley’s verse (American Thought and Writing: The 1890’s, 1972)—are perhaps nowhere more apparent than in “Knee-Deep in June,” originally published in the Indianapolis Journal in 1885. Overlong at eight stanzas, it enjoins one to find an orchard and “Lay out there and try to see/ Jes’ how lazy you kin be!—” Although the persona explains in the first stanza that he engages in this sort of activity (or lack thereof) only on “some afternoon[s],” it is nevertheless apparent that he could do this “stiddy fer a year er two,” if not for eternity; and the overall impression that one receives from “Knee-Deep in June” is that the Puritan work ethic has been rejected wholesale. Quite typical of Riley’s verse are the poem’s vague renderings of the details of a country landscape (“Hear the old hen squawk, and squat/ Over ever’ chick she’s got”), the domestic metaphors (the shadows are “thick and soft/ As the kivvers on the bed/ Mother fixes in the loft/ Allus, when they’s company!”), and the strained attempts at quaint humor (“Mr. Bluejay, full o’ sass,/ In them base-ball clothes o’ his”). Even the reference to death is carefully sentimentalized to contribute to the aura of lassitude:

Thinkin’ of old chums ’at’s dead,Maybe, smilin’ back at youIn betwixt the beautifulClouds o’ gold and white and blue!

In keeping with the theme of the poem, “Knee-Deep in June” is spread out in leisurely fashion over seven pages of the volume Songs of Summer and features three illustrations by Will Vawter, including a full-page picture of a man “Sprawl[ed] out len’thways on the grass.”

“Nothin’ to Say”

The sentimentality so characteristic of “When the Frost Is on the Punkin” and “Knee-Deep in June” is also evident in the Riley poems that focus on interpersonal relationships rather than on farm life as such. “Nothin’ to Say,” which was accepted for publication by the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine in 1883 but which did not appear until August of 1887, was an immensely popular poem in its day. It is a dramatic monologue in which a father speaks to his daughter, who has declared her intention of getting married on her next birthday. The girl’s mother is dead, having left her baby daughter a “little Bible” with “yer name acrost the page” and some earrings; and, as might well be anticipated, the daughter, in looks and size, is much like the mother. To complete the mother/daughter analogy, the father notes that “It’ll ’most seem like you was dead like her!”; but, faced with the inevitability of his child marrying and moving away, the helpless father “hain’t got nothin’ to say!”

“The Old Man and Jim”

A poem equally predictable and sentimental is “The Old Man and Jim,” one of Riley’s most successful platform pieces. The unidentified narrator records the relationship between an old farmer and his favorite son Jim, “the wildest boy he had.” Constitutionally ill-suited to...

(The entire section is 2376 words.)