July 26, 2010

James Whitcomb Riley: every hope serene

In his early career as a poet, James Whitcomb Riley struggled to get attention. He approached several newspapers to print his works, particularly in his home state of Indiana. Soon, he became one of the state's most famous writers, earning the nickname of "The Hoosier Poet."

Yet, in 1879, he was 29 years old and still struggled (he is pictured at right at age 28). It took the publication of a play to convince newspapers to publish his poetry. One such publication was The Indianapolis Saturday Herald, which published four of his poems in its July 26, 1879 issue: "Last Words," "At Bay," "A Worn-Out Pencil," and "God Bless Us Every One." The latter two were later included in book-length poetry collections in the author's lifetime; the first two never were.

"At Bay" directly addresses "Fate," who the narrator is ready to either embrace or "strike blow for blow." Fate is an enemy in the poem, and its narrator offers harsh words of threatened violence and vengeance. "You have crouched along my track like a hound," the poem says, as Fate blocks "every hope serene." After years of experience, however, the narrator is now ready to confront Fate "hand or fist."

For something completely different, "Last Words" is written in the voice of a woman:

He left me for a foreign land:
  I could not even free
One little tear to gem the hand
  That God had give me;
For "I will follow soon, my dear,"
  I laughed with girlish air, —
"The sun that cheers our pathway here
  Shall beam upon us there!"

And so we parted... Listen, God! —
  I may not even free
One little tear to dew the sod
  Where, sleeping peacefully,
He waits in foreign lands — my dear!
  But prophecy and prayer, —
"The sun that cheers our pathways here
  Shall beam upon us — there!"


  1. I wonder where the husband was going--from America to Europe? Or to America from Europe? Seems an interesting choice for this poet.

    FYI- next week I'm taking on different literary movements. I hesitate to tell you, with your knowledge, but hope you'll check it out!


  2. Hi, Michele - I haven't seen you here in a while! Yes, the poem is tantalizingly short and lacking in details. I think your guess is as good as any.

    I'll be sure to drop by Southern City Mysteries to see what's going on!

  3. What if--
    He died and the foreign land is heaven. She couldn't cry because she expects to be there with him soon. The sun shines brightly here, but there where he is, it will shine even more brilliantly. She addresses God that she may not shed a tear to dew the sod under which he is buried and sleeping peacefully, but he is waiting for her to come to where the sun will beam on them there.


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