September 1, 2010

Riley: the horror crept

August 1886 ended with a massive earthquake in Charleston, South Carolina. Though it lasted less than a minute, it caused substantial damage and some estimate over 100 people were killed.

Certainly, natural disasters inspire strong emotional responses in writers. Within 24 hours, on September 1, 1886, the Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote a poem about the disaster. It was published only a few days later in the Indianapolis Journal. The poem may be an unusual one in Riley's career. He is often considered a humorist or a children's poet and his verses usually reflect less serious topics.

"The Earthquake"
Charleston, September 1, 1886

An hour ago the lulling twilight leant
Above us like a gentle nurse who slips
A slow palm o'er our eyes, in soft eclipse
Of feigned slumber of most sweet content.
The fragrant zephyrs of the tropic went
And came across the senses, like to sips
Of lovers' kisses, when upon her lips
Silence sets finger in grave merriment.
Then—sudden—did the earth moan as it slept,
And start as one in evil dreams, and toss
Its peopled arms up, as the horror crept.
And with vast breast upheaved and rent across,
Fling down the storied citadel where wept,
And still shall weep, a world above its loss.

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