April 2, 2011

Riley: children by Divine birthright

On April 2, 1904, Collier's Weekly published "The Children of the Childless" by James Whitcomb Riley. The Indiana-based poet (the "Hoosier Poet," as they called him), was then approaching 55 years old. That year he would receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, following up another from Yale University two years earlier.

The Children of the Childless!—Yours—and mine.—
Yea, though we sit here in the pitying gaze
Of fathers and mothers whose fond fingers twine
Their children's locks of living gold, and praise
With warm, caressing palms, the head of brown,
Or crown
Of opulent auburn, with its amber floss
In all its splendor loosed and jostled down
The mother-lap at prayer.—Yea, even when
These sweet petitioners are kissed, and then
Are kissed and kissed again—
The pursed mouths lifted with the worldlier prayer
That bed and oblivion spare
Them yet a little while
Beside their envied elders by the glow
Of the glad firelight; or wresting, as they go,
Some promise for the morrow, to beguile
Their long exile
Within the wild waste lands of dream and sleep.
Nay, nay, not even these most stably real
Of children are more loved than our ideal—
More tangible to the soul's touch and sight
Than these—our children by Divine birthright. . . .
These—these of ours, who soothe us, when we weep,
With tenderest ministries,
Or, flashing into smiling ecstasies,
Come dashing through our tears—ay, laughing leap
Into our empty arms, in Fate's despite,
And nestle to our hearts. O Heaven's delight!—
The children of the childless—even these!

Shortly after the turn of the century, Riley had been diagnosed with a nervous disorder and often turned to alcohol for relief. His poem above — uniquely experimental in structure as it is — is in marked contrast to the more light-hearted verses, as some commentators note, aimed to teach children moral lessons. Whatever "children" Riley referred to in this poem, he had none of his own and never married (though he was a devoted uncle).

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