The Ambrosia of James Whitcomb Riley
"Chelifer" in "The Bookery."—Godey's Magazine.
There are writers that take Pegasus on giddier flights of fancy, and writers
that sit him more grandly, and writers that put him through daintier paces, and
writers that burden him with anguish nearer that of the dread Rider of the White
Horse, and there are writers that make him a very bucking broncho of wit, but
there is no one that turns Pegasus into just such an ambling nag of lazy peace
and pastoral content as James—I had almost said Joshua Whitcomb—Riley. If you
want a panacea for the bitterness and the fret and the snobbishness and
pretension and unsympathy and the commercial ambition and worry and the other
cankers that gnaw and gnaw the soul, just throw a leg over the back of Riley's
Pegasus, "perfectly safe for family driving," let the reins hang loose as you
sag limply in your saddle, and gaze through drowsy eyes while the amiable old
beast jogs down lanes blissful with rural quietude, through farmyards full of
picturesque rustics and through the streets of quaint villages. Then utter rest
and a peace akin to bliss will possess your soul.
To make readers content with life and glad to live is one of the most
dazzlingly magnificent deeds in the power of an artist. This is too little
appreciated in the melodramatic theatricism of our life. This genius for
soothing the reader with a pathos that is not anguish and a humor that is not
cynicism, this genius belongs to Mr. Riley in a degree I have found in no other
writer in all literature.
Of course, Mr. Riley is essentially a lyric poet. But his spirit is that of
Walt Whitman; he speaks the universal democracy, the equality of man, the hatred
of assumption and snobbery, that our republic stands for, if it stands for
anything. Now downright didacticism in a poet is an abomination. But if a poet
has no right to ponder the meanings of things, the feelings of man for man and
the higher "criticism of life," then no one has. If to Pope's "The proper study
of mankind is man," you add "nature" and "nature's God," you will fairly well
outline the poet's field.
Mere art (Heaven save the "mere"!) is not, and has never been, enough to
place a poet among the great spirits of the world. It has furnished a number of
nimble mandolinists and exquisite dilettants for lazy moods. But great poetry
must always be something more than sweetmeats; it must be food—temptingly
cooked, winningly served, well spiced and well accompanied, but yet food to
strengthen the blood and the sinews of the soul.
Therefore I make so bold as to insist that even in a lyrist there should be
something more than the prosperity or the dirge of personal amours: there
should be a sympathy with the world-joy, the world-suffering, and the
world-kinship. It is this attitude toward lyric poetry that makes me think Mr.
Riley a poet whose exquisite art is lavished on humanity so deep-sounding as to
commend him to the acceptance of immortality among the highest lyrists.
Horace was an acute thinker and a frank speaker on the problems of life. This
didacticism seems not to have harmed his artistic welfare, for he has
undoubtedly been the most popular poet that ever wrote. Consider the magnitude
and the enthusiasm of his audience! He has been the personal chum of everyone
that ever read Latinity. But Horace, when not exalted with his inspired
preachments on the art of life and the arts of poetry and love, was a bitter
cynic redeemed by great self-depreciation and joviality. The son of a slave, he
was too fond of court life to talk democracy.
Bobby Burns was a thorough child of the people, and is more like Mr. Riley in
every way than any other poet. Yet he, too, had a vicious cynicism, and he never
had the polished art that enriches some of Mr. Riley's non-dialectic poetry, as
in parts of his fairy fancy, "The Flying Islands of the Night."
Burns never had the versatility of sympathy that enables Mr. Riley to write
such unpastoral masterpieces as "Anselmo," "The Dead Lover," "A Scrawl," "The
Home-going," some of his sonnets, and the noble verses beginning
"A monument for the soldiers!
And what will ye build it of?"
Yet it must be owned that Burns is in general Mr. Riley's prototype. Mr.
Riley admits it himself in his charming verses "To Robert Burns."
"Sweet singer, that I lo'e the maist
O' ony, sin' wi' eager haste
I smacket bairn lips ower the taste
O' hinnied sang."
The classic pastoral poets, Theokritos, Vergandil, the others, sang with an
exquisite art, indeed, yet their farm-folk were really Dresden-china shepherds
and shepherdesses speaking with affected simplicity or with impossible elegance.
Theokritos, like Burns and Riley, wrote partly in dialect and partly in the
standard speech, and to those who are never reconciled to anything that can
quote no "authority," there should be sufficient justification for dialect
poetry in this divine Sicilian musician of whom his own Goatherd might have
"Full of fine honey thy beautiful mouth was,
Full of the honeycomb; figs Ægilean, too, mayest
Sweet as they are; for ev'n than the locust more
bravely thou singest."
I have no room to argue the pro's of dialect here, but it always seems
strange that those lazy critics who are unwilling to take the trouble to
translate the occasional hard words in a dialect form of their own tongue,
should be so inconsistent as ever to study a foreign language. Then, too,
dialect is necessary to truth, to local color, to intimacy with the character
depicted. Besides, it is delicious. There is something mellow and soul-warming
about a plebeian metathesis like "congergation." What orthoepy could replace
lines like these?:
"Worter, shade and all so mixed, don't know
which you'd orter
Say, th' worter in the shadder—shadder
in the worter!"
One thing about Mr. Riley's dialect that may puzzle those not familiar with
the living speech of the Hoosiers, is his spelling, which is chiefly done as if
by the illiterate speaker himself. Thus "rostneer-time" and "ornry" must be
Æolic Greek to those barbarians who have never heard of "roasting-ears" of corn
or of that contemptuous synonym for "vulgar," "common," which is smoothly
elided, "or(di)n(a)ry." Both of these words could be spelled with a suggestive
and helpful use of apostrophes: "roast'n'-ear," and or'n'ry.
Jumbles like "jevver" for "did you ever?" and the like can hardly be spelled
otherwise than phonetically, but a glossary should be appended as in Lowell's
"Biglow Papers," for the poems are eminently worth even lexicon-thumbing.
Another frequent fault of dialect writers is the spelling phonetically of words
pronounced everywhere alike. Thus "enough" is spelled "enuff," and "clamor,"
"clammer," though Dr. Johnson himself would never have pronounced them
otherwise. In these misspellings, however, Mr. Riley excuses himself by
impersonating an illiterate as well as a crude-speaking poet. But even then he
is inconsistent, and "hollowing" becomes "hollerin'," with an apostrophe to mark
the lost "g"—that abominable imported harshness that ought to be generally
exiled from our none too smooth language. Mr. Riley has written a good essay in
defense of dialect, which enemies of this form of literature might read with
But Mr. Riley has written a deal of most excellent verse that is not
in dialect. One whole volume is devoted to a fairy
extravaganza called "The Flying Islands of the Night," a
good addition to that quaint literature of lace to which
"The Midsummer Night's Dream," Herrick's "Oberon's
Epithalamium," or whatever it is called, Drake's
"Culprit Fay," and other bits of most exquisite foolery
belong. While hardly a complete success, this diminutive
drama contains some curiously delightful conceits like
"Her face—her brow—her hair unfurled!—
And O the oval chin below,
Carved, like a cunning cameo,
With one exquisite dimple, swirled
With swimming shine and shade, and whirled
The daintiest vortex poets know—
The sweetest whirlpool ever twirled
By Cupid's finger-tip—and so,
The deadliest maelstrom in the world!"
It is a strange individuality that Mr. Riley has, suggesting numerous other
masters—whose influence he acknowledges in special odes—and yet all digested and
assimilated into a marked individuality of his own. He has studied the English
poets profoundly and improved himself upon them, till one is chiefly impressed,
in his non-dialectic verse, with his refinement, subtlety, and ease. He has a
large vocabulary, and his felicity is at times startling. Thus he speaks of
water "chuckling," which is as good as Horace's ripples that "gnaw" the shore.
Note the mastery of such lines as
"And the dust of the road is like velvet."
"Nothin' but green woods and clear
Skies and unwrit poetry
By the acre!"
"Then God smiled and it was morning!"
Life is "A poor pale yesterday of Death."
"And O I wanted so
To be felt sorry for!"
"Always suddenly they are gone,
The friends we trusted and held secure."
"At utter loaf."
"Knee-deep in June."
—But I can not go on quoting forever.
Technically, Mr. Riley is a master of surpassing finish. His meters are
perfect and varied. They flow as smoothly as his own Indiana streams. His rimes
are almost never imperfect. To prove his own understanding he has written one
scherzo in technic that is a delightful example of bad rime, bad meter, and
the other earmarks of the poor poet. It is "Ezra House," and begins:
"Come listen, good people, while a story I do
Of the sad fate of one I knew so passing well!"
The "do" and the "so" are the unfailing index of crudity. Then we have rimes
like "long" and "along" (it is curious that modern English is the only tongue
that finds this repetition objectionable); "moon" and "tomb," "well" and "hill,"
and "said" and "denied" are others, and the whole thing is an enchanting lesson
in How Poetry Should Not be Written.
Mr. Riley is fond of dividing words at the ends of lines, but always in a
comic way, though Horace, you remember, was not unwilling to use it seriously,
as in his
Mr. Riley's animadversions on "Addeliney Bowersox" constitute a fascinating
study in this effect. He is also devoted to dividing an adjective from its noun
by a line-end. This is a trick of Poe's, whose influence Mr. Riley has greatly
profited by. In his dialect poetry Mr. Riley gets just the effect of the jerky
drawl of the Hoosier by using the end of a line as a knife, thus:
Green again, and sun feels good's
His masterly use of the cæsura is notable, too. See its charming despotism in
But it is not his technic that makes him ambrosial, not the loving care
ad unguem that smooths the uncouthest dialect into lilting tunefulness
without depriving it of its colloquial verisimilitude—it is none of these things
of mechanical inspiration, but the spirit of the man, his democracy, his
tenderness, the health and wealth of his sympathies. If he uses "memory" a
little too often as a vehicle for his rural pictures, the utter charm of the
pictures is atonement enough. He has caught the real American. He is the
laureate of the bliss of laziness. His child poems are the next best thing to
the child itself; they have all the infectious essence of gayety, and all the
naïveté, and all the knife-like appeal. It could not reasonably be demanded
that his prose should equal the perfection of his verse, but nothing more eerie
has ever been done than the little story, "Where is Mary Alice Smith?" with its
strange use of rime at the end.
Of all dialect writers he has been the most versatile. Think of the author of
"The Raggedy Man" or "Orphant Annie" writing one of the finest sonnets in the
language! this one which I must quote here as a noble ending to my halt praise:
"Being his mother, when he goes away
I would not hold him overlong, and so
Sometimes my yielding sight of him grows O
So quick of tears, I joy he did not stay
To catch the faintest rumor of them! Nay,
Leave always his eyes clear and glad, although
Mine own, dear Lord, do fill to overflow;
"Let his remembered features, as I pray,
Smile ever on me. Ah! what stress of love
Thou givest me to guard with Thee thiswise:
Its fullest speech ever to be denied
Mine own—being his mother! All thereof
Thou knowest only, looking from the skies
As when not Christ alone was crucified."
Life is the more tolerable, the more full of learned sympathy, and thereby of
joy and value, for the very existence of such a man.