July 8, 2011

O noble, true and pure and lovable

In 1893, James Whitcomb Riley was traveling on a lecture tour of the United States. At some point, he stopped at his childhood home where a photograph was taken (shown above). The incident may have reminded him of his mother, Elizabeth Marine Riley, who had died in 1870. She had taught him to read and write as a boy and encouraged his creativity. Whether or not she was the inspiration for the sonnet "To Elizabeth" is uncertain, but the poem is listed as an "obit" and dated July 8, 1893:

O noble, true and pure and lovable
As thine own blessed name, Elizabeth!—
Aye, even as its cadence lingereth
Upon the lips that speak it, so the spell
Of thy sweet memory shall ever dwell
As music in our hearts. Smiling at Death
As on some later guest that tarrieth,
Too gratefully o'erjoyed to say farewell,
Thou hast turned from us but a little space—
We miss thy presence but a little while,
Thy voice of sympathy, thy word of cheer,
The radiant glory of thine eyes and face,
The glad midsummer morning of thy smile,—
For still we feel and know that thou art here.

In 1915, an edition of Riley's collected works was called the "Elizabeth Marine Riley Edition." Only 150 were produced and each set included hand-colored watercolor illustrations. If she inspired this particular poem or not, Riley's work often refers to mothers or motherhood, as in "When Mother Combed My Hair," "A Boy's Mother," "Being His Mother," and several others.

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