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Comforter To The Skylark
on December 2, 2002
Folksy Hoosier James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) is America's premier poet of the sentimental.
'The Complete Poetical Works Of James Whitcomb Riley' brings together over 1,000 touching, humorous, easy to read, and intelligent but non-intellectual poems, many filled with longing for irretrievable childhood innocence, freedom, and joy.
Today's readers will find the volume a genuine time capsule into the past; these poems will evoke not only the reader's own memories of childhood, but also a simpler and perhaps more innocent and joyous America. The ambitions and expectations expressed by the speakers, narrators, and characters in the poems are humble, the horizons of their world near. One of the secrets of Riley's backward-glancing poems is that his reflections are only partially regretful; the joys of the past are equaled by the child-like joy still present in the adult poet's heart. Dozens of the pieces included here are suitable for reading to and sharing with children.
Titles 'The Swimming Hole,' 'The Noble Old Elm,' 'Company Manners,' 'When Mother Combed My Hair,' 'Us Farmers In The Country' 'My First Spectacles,' 'Blooms In May,' 'Two Sonnets To The June -Bug,' 'The Land Of Used-To-Be,' and 'Our Boyhood Haunts' offer a good indication of the book's content.
There are numerous nature poems and celebrations of the seasons, summer meadows of "clover to the knee," August moons, lazy rivers, "the twitter of the bluebird and the wren," and, in one of Riley's most famous, the frost "on the punkin."
There are tributes to William McKinley and Abraham Lincoln, to Tennyson, Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Joel Chandler Harris. Famous characters 'Little Orphant Annie' and 'The Raggedy Man' are here; Puck makes an appearance "under a low crescent moon" in a poem of his own, as do Pan, Santa Claus, pixies, and goblins in others. Odes to boyhood best friends abound. People lived on closer terms with death in Riley's time, and, appropriately, a number of the poems address the subject, all of which express either blissful faith in the afterlife or sadness for the living left behind.
Riley was endlessly inventive within the limited sphere of his talent, or, perhaps, within the limitations he purposefully set upon it. Oddly, there are relatively few poems celebrating romantic love and marriage.
Riley, who never married, apparently held the adult world and women in particular in no little suspicion. In his poetry, eligible women are generally kept at what Riley must have felt was a safe distance, though there are numerous tributes to mothers, aunts, sisters, and little girls---even stepmothers are embraced lovingly. But when Riley wrote about single women and imagined wives, his poetic vision generally darkened.
In 'The Werewife,' the volume's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci,' Riley portrays the speaker's "fluttering, moth-winged soul" helplessly caught and mesmerized by his wife, a white-skinned, red-cheeked seductress who is also a murderous vampire.
In 'The Mad Lover,' the narrator lives in a state of grim emotional paralysis after falling in love with 'Miriam Wayne,' though whether "fate" or Miriam herself is the cause of the "evil" and the lover's madness is not made clear.
In 'Oh, Her Beauty,' the poet sings the praises his beloved's transcendent loveliness, but the last lines find him on his knees in thanks to God for revealing her spiritual ugliness at the eleventh hour.
The plucky woman in 'Her Choice' is asked by her lover to chose his "love or hate," and she chooses "your hate, my dear!" The cuckolded man in 'The Lovely Husband' fans his wife and cold creams her face upon command, ignores her plucky unfaithfulness, and is every way a "handy hubby" and "lovey-dovey" until he cheerfully takes a shot gun and shoots her.
The lover of the imprisoned killer in 'Life Sentence' is "false, while he was true," "the mistress of all siren arts," and "the poor soulless heroine of a hundred hearts!"
Riley and Carl Sandburg were kindred souls; admirers of Sandburg will find that Sandburg's work was partially a progression of Riley's. Both poets' verse is filled with anecdotes, homey bits of wisdom, funny stories, songs, folk truisms, and legendary characters. Riley's poems are snippets of life, fireside tales, and reflections; unlike Sandburg, politics are occasionally touched upon but never the pivotal focus in Riley's work.
How readers react to John Whitcomb Riley will depend on how they respond to the overtly sentimental and the character of the times in which he wrote, for these poems effortlessly evoke it.
Though warmly sentimental, Riley was also bright and witty and full of spark, a dreamy, reflective, pre -urban poet of the small town and the home, of the sun porch and the rocking chair, of back fence gossip and street corner news, and of the American dream as it was conceived in his era.
Potential readers may think themselves too sophisticated, cynical, or highbrow to enjoy the happily middlebrow works of James Whitcomb Riley. But such readers may be pleasantly surprised at how completely they find themselves immersed in Riley's detailed, frequently timeless, invigorating, and ingenious work.
Despite its overall simplicity, Riley's work comfortably rests within the grander tradition of American literature, and makes for visionary reading in its own unique, whimsical manner.