The Hoosier Poet:  James Whitcomb Riley


  Autumn is the time for James Whitcomb Riley.  It's appropriate that the Hoosier poet was born in the fall (October 7, 1849.)  Although his thousands of poems range over all seasons and subjects, he is most remembered these days when "there's something kinda' harty-like about the atmusfere, when the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here."

            Riley's poems conjure up the aromas and sights and sounds of autumn.  You can feel the crispness in the air.  You can hear the dry leaves crunch and crackle under your feet as you saunter through the woods and glory at the blaze of nature's colors in the trees.  Memories of other autumns are stirred like the embers of a dying campfire.

            Riley was a Greenfield boy who knew that these days between summer and winter are the ones to be savored.  They possess a fading, poignant beauty that appeals to the poet in all of us.  Autumn is warm afternoons edged by chilly nights.  It's the smell of apple cider and burning leaves.  It's a cap and jacket if you're out very long.  And it's a little scary, too, for isn't autumn the time of goblins?

            Many a marshmallow roaster has "had the mostest fun, a-listening to the witch-tales at Annie tells about, an' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you if you don't watch out!"

            Halloween just wouldn't be the same without Riley's "Little Orphant Annie."  Generations of kids have grown up to it and, with all due respect to child psychologists, I don't think they have been done any harm.  The lessons are clear:

            Little Orphant Annie says when the blaze is blue, and the lamp-wick sputters, and the wind goes woo-oo!

            And you hear the crickets quit, and the moon is gray, and the lightnin' bugs in dew is all squenched away,

            You better mind your parunts and your teachers fond an' dear, and cherish them that loves you, and dry the orphant's tear,

            And help the poor and needy ones that cluster all about,

            Or the Gobble-uns git you if you don't watch out!

            Who knows how many kids have been steered back to the straight and narrow by these words of Riley?

            At any rate, it's a fun poem to hear on a cold and dark October night.

            I think of Riley at this time of year.  As I re-set the thermostat.  As I look for my sweaters and window scrapers.  As I go to the orchard for a bag of red delicious and a cup of cider.  As I drain the gasoline out of the lawn mowers.  As I carry a blanket and thermos of hot chocolate to a football game.  As I gauge the passing of time by the shade of red in our sweet gum tree.  As I just sit and think.  I think of Riley:

            The air's so appetizin' and the landscape through the haze

            Of a crisp and sunny morning of the early autumn days

            Is a picture that no painter has the colorin' to mock,

            When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.