James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley (1849 - 1916)

James Whitcomb Riley was born on October 7, 1849 in Greenfield, Indiana, surrounded by farmland and primitive forests. The wooden planked National Road, which American pioneers and settlers used to travel to the western half of the nation, ran right through Greenfield. The area was diverse in culture, with people from many different homelands, though outwardly appearing as rough wilderness and newly settled country.

The critic, Hamlin Garland, described it after a visit by saying, “To my eyes it was the most unpromising field for art, especially for the art of verse. The landscape had no hills, no lakes, no streams of any movement or beauty. Ragged fence-rows, flat and dusty roads, fields of wheat alternating with clumps of trees – these were the features of a country which to me was utterly commonplace – and yet from this dusty, drab, unpromising environment, Riley had been able to draw the honey of woodland poesy, a sweet in which a native fragrance as of basswood and buckwheat bloom mingled with hints of an English meadow and the tang of a Canada thistle.”

Riley’s father, being a frontier politician and lawyer, named his son after an Indiana governor, James Whitcomb. Riley’s mother was, of course, a homemaker, and she also wrote poetry. Riley had a difficult time academically, but possessed a talent for language, especially that of his own people. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but Riley did not apply himself to law. For a time he traveled the American Midwest as a sign painter. He also traveled with a medicine salesman, and drew crowds by playing songs and performing impersonations of people he had met in his travels.

Riley’s childhood and home were also great influences on him. His most famous poems were about people and situations from his real life. His poems, “The Raggedy Man,” and “Little Orphant Annie,” are about a hired hand and an orphan girl who helped on the family farm. The farmhand and Annie told the local children stories that Riley immortalized in his work. His poems, though of epic proportion in many senses, told of everyday things.

Riley, like many poets, published his first works in newspapers. At first he wrote under a pen name, “Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone.” He often wrote in his own dialect, appealing to the majority of people with his common style and words. Garland held Riley alike to Mark Twain, for his ability to use natural dialect in his writing and speech, though also possessing the ability to speak in a more precise and standard English. After the success of his written work, Riley took to the road again, and traveled around the country to recite his poems in every city. This earned him great popularity, and people were fascinated by his dialect and use of the language, as well as his cheerful sense of humor.

In 1883, a collection of his poems was published, entitled “The Old Swimmin’ Hole and ‘Leven More Poems,” followed by “Rhymes of Childhood” in 1890, “Poems Here at Home” in 1893, and “Knee Deep in June,” in 1912. His most famous poems are “Little Orphant Annie,” “The Raggedy Man,” “When the Frost Is On the Punkin,” and “The Runaway Boy.” In Riley’s later life, these volumes attracted both national and international readers, and he became the wealthiest writer of the time. He was honorably labeled as America’s “Children’s Poet,” and as “The Hoosier Poet,” in his home state.

James Whitcomb Riley died of a stroke on 22 July, 1916. The United States President, Woodrow Wilson, sent a note to the poet’s family, saying Riley was “…a man who imparted joyful pleasure and a thoughtful view of many things that other men would have missed.” Named after him in Indianapolis, the state capital, is Riley Hospital for Children.

In 1999, his hometown of Greenfield and his fans celebrated his 150th birthday, and Indiana governor, Frank O’Bannon, proclaimed October 7, 1999, “James Whitcomb Riley Day.” Each year Greenfield hosts a “James Whitcomb Riley Festival,” and the children of the area honor the poet by placing flowers on his statue at the Hancock County Courthouse.

“With a cheery word and a wave of the hand
He has wandered into a foreign land-
He is not dead, he is just away!”

–James Whitcomb Riley

Analysis, meaning and summary of James Whitcomb Riley's poem When the Frost is on the Punkin

8 Comments

  1. Ralph E. Shaffer, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly Pomona says:

    Having enjoyed Riley’s poems throughout my 80 years, and with parents
    who grew up on Riley poems in their late-19th century Indiana home, I
    couldn’t resist writing this parody when I found out what it will cost
    to send my grandson to college a year from now. When I went to UCLA
    over 60 years ago there was no tuition and my room and board was $36 a
    month. The cost at top-flight private colleges for the coming year
    ranges from $40-50,000. Almost unbelievable! That’s why I felt
    compelled to re-write the opening stanza of When the Frost is on the
    Punkin.

    LAMENT OF A KID GOING OFF TO COLLEGE
    [With a little help from James Whitcomb Riley]

    WHEN THE COST OF MY TUITION PUT MY FODDER INTO SHOCK

    AND THE CHARGES FOR MY TEXTBOOKS MADE HIM WONDER WHAT TO HOCK

    FROM THE CONTRACT FOR MY DORM ROOM AND THE FEES FOR BALL POINT PENS

    TO THE ‘LUMNI BOOSTERS DUNNING OF MYSELF AND FRESHMAN FRIENDS

    O, IT’S THEN THE TIME A PARENT IS A-NEEDIN’ PEACE AND REST

    ‘MIDST THE RISIN’ COST A-LIVIN’ AND IT AIN’T ABOUT TO CREST

    AS I LEAVE THE HOUSE FOR COLLEGE DAD IS TELLIN’ ALL THE BLOCK:

    “WHEN THE FROST IS ON THE PUNKIN THAT KID’S GRADES HAD BETTER ROCK.”

  2. Anonymous says:

    This poem is my first experience of poetry. Raised in Indiana, we had a class on Indiana History at the school. This man has had a profound effect on my life. His music with words have stayed with me and helped me to have an open and questioning insight into the world as I experience it. His apparent simplicity masks a rich and powerful understanding of the nature of life.

  3. trisha says:

    this my favorite poem of james because its silly and funny but it also has a meaning to it some of us may not realize it but this poem may have meaning no matter what kind of personality me or you or others may have so when the frost is on the punkin remember james whitcomb riley for him and not what people write or do or say to find the truth find someone or colide facts from other writers.

  4. William John Hawthorn says:

    My mother had no more than a high school education because my grandfather was a coal miner, but she exposed my sisters, brother and I to an amazing variety of life experiences including travel, unusual foods, literature, especially poetry. J.W.R and E.A. Poe became my favorites. I was thrilled one day while browsing in a Goodwill store to come across a signed, used copy of a book that my mother had written. I can still hear her reciting from memory “When the frost” and “Once upon a midnight dreary, every word.

  5. John Karamanski says:

    The story give me a big sigh of understanding.Riley captures the feeling of exilerated anxiety when viewing the colors and the articulated moments of a fall.Extrordinary crispness and colors so special in hue and intensity as to make one sigh at the realization of both the intensity of there brillance in the moment before death.

  6. June Backhaus says:

    I recalled this poem from the past but couldn’t remember more than the first line. As I was scrapbooking a page with pumpkins on it, I thought this would be the perfect poem to go along with it. I love the rhythm and vernacular of it.

  7. Michael Robertson says:

    This poem reflects on far more than a farmer being finished with his harvest for the year. It speaks to
    a man wanting to feel that his life has been worth living
    and that his life made a difference and that he is ready
    to go on to his reward.
    thanks for the site.

  8. wbpoet says:

    This is a wonderful analogy of the days of life and the ending of sed life. Rileys country slang adds great character to his poetry…………..wbpoet

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