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Best Famous James Whitcomb Riley Poems

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by Henry Van Dyke | |

To James Whitcomb Riley

 On his "Book of Joyous Children"

Yours is a garden of old-fashioned flowers;
Joyous children delight to play there;
Weary men find rest in its bowers,
Watching the lingering light of day there.
Old-time tunes and young love's laughter Ripple and run among the roses; Memory's echoes, murmuring after, Fill the dusk when the long day closes.
Simple songs with a cadence olden-- These you learned in the Forest of Arden: Friendly flowers with hearts all golden-- These you borrowed from Eden's garden.
This is the reason why all men love you; Truth to life is the charm of art: Other poets may soar above you-- You keep close to the human heart.

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

The Willow

 On sweet young earth where the myrtle presses,
Long we lay, when the May was new;
The willow was winding the moon in her tresses,
The bud of the rose was told with dew.
And now on the brittle ground I'm lying, Screaming to die with the dead year's dead; The stem of the rose is black and drying, The willow is tossing the wind from her head.

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

The Merman


Who would be
A merman bold,
Sitting alone
Singing alone
Under the sea,
With a crown of gold,
On a throne?


I would be a merman bold,
I would sit and sing the whole of the day;
I would fill the sea-halls with a voice of power;
But at night I would roam abroad and play
With the mermaids in and out of the rocks,
Dressing their hair with the white sea-flower;
And holding them back by their flowing locks
I would kiss them often under the sea,
And kiss them again till they kiss'd me
 Laughingly, laughingly;
And then we would wander away, away,
To the pale-green sea-groves straight and high,
 Chasing each other merrily.
III There would be neither moon nor star; But the wave would make music above us afar -- Low thunder and light in the magic night -- Neither moon nor star.
We would call aloud in the dreamy dells, Call to each other and whoop and cry All night, merrily, merrily.
They would pelt me with starry spangles and shells, Laughing and clapping their hands between, All night, merrily, merrily, But I would throw to them back in mine Turkis and agate and almondine; Then leaping out upon them unseen I would kiss them often under the sea, And kiss them again till they kiss'd me Laughingly, laughingly.
O, what a happy life where mine Under the hollow-hung ocean green! Soft are the moss-beds under the sea; We would live merrily, merrily.

More great poems below...

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

The Rival

 If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.
You leave the same impression Of something beautiful, but annihilating.
Both of you are great light borrowers.
Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected, And your first gift is making stone out of everything.
I wake to a mausoleum; you are here, Ticking your fingers on the marble table, looking for cigarettes, Spiteful as a woman, but not so nervous, And dying to say something unanswerable.
The moon, too, abuses her subjects, But in the daytime she is ridiculous.
Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand, Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity, White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide.
No day is safe from news of you, Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

When the Frost is on the Punkin

 When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it's then's the times a feller is a-feelin' at his best,
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
They's something kindo' harty-like about the atmusfere When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here-- Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees, And the mumble of the hummin'-birds and buzzin' of the bees; But the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days Is a pictur' that no painter has the colorin' to mock-- When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn, And the raspin' of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn; The stubble in the furries--kindo' lonesome-like, but still A-preachin' sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill; The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed; The hosses in theyr stalls below--the clover over-head!-- O, it sets my hart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock, When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock! Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps; And your cider-makin' 's over, and your wimmern-folks is through With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too! .
I don't know how to tell it--but ef sich a thing could be As the Angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on me-- I'd want to 'commodate 'em--all the whole-indurin' flock-- When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

The Bumblebee

 You better not fool with a Bumblebee! --
Ef you don't think they can sting -- you'll see!
They're lazy to look at, an' kind o' go
Buzzin' an' bummin' aroun' so slow,
An' ac' so slouchy an' all fagged out,
Danglin' their legs as they drone about
The hollyhawks 'at they can't climb in
'Ithout ist a-tumble-un out ag'in!
Wunst I watched one climb clean 'way
In a jimson-blossom, I did, one day, --
An' I ist grabbed it -- an' nen let go --
An' "Ooh-ooh! Honey! I told ye so!"
Says The Raggedy Man; an' he ist run
An' pullt out the stinger, an' don't laugh none,
An' says: "They has be'n folks, I guess,
'At thought I wuz predjudust, more er less, --
Yit I still muntain 'at a Bumblebee
Wears out his welcome too quick fer me!"

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

A Barefoot Boy

 A barefoot boy! I mark him at his play --
 For May is here once more, and so is he, --
 His dusty trousers, rolled half to the knee,
And his bare ankles grimy, too, as they:
Cross-hatchings of the nettle, in array
 Of feverish stripes, hint vividly to me
 Of woody pathways winding endlessly
Along the creek, where even yesterday
He plunged his shrinking body -- gasped and shook --
 Yet called the water "warm," with never lack
Of joy.
And so, half enviously I look Upon this graceless barefoot and his track, -- His toe stubbed -- ay, his big toe-nail knocked back Like unto the clasp of an old pocketbook.

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

Our Hired Girl

 Our hired girl, she's 'Lizabuth Ann;
An' she can cook best things to eat!
She ist puts dough in our pie-pan,
An' pours in somepin' 'at's good an' sweet;
An' nen she salts it all on top
With cinnamon; an' nen she'll stop
An' stoop an' slide it, ist as slow,
In th' old cook-stove, so's 'twon't slop
An' git all spilled; nen bakes it, so
It's custard-pie, first thing you know!
An' nen she'll say,
"Clear out o' my way!
They's time fer work, an' time fer play!
Take yer dough, an' run, child, run!
Er I cain't git no cookin' done!"

When our hired girl 'tends like she's mad,
An' says folks got to walk the chalk
When she's around, er wisht they had!
I play out on our porch an' talk
To Th' Raggedy Man 'at mows our lawn;
An' he says, "Whew!" an' nen leans on
His old crook-scythe, and blinks his eyes,
An' sniffs all 'round an' says, "I swawn!
Ef my old nose don't tell me lies,
It 'pears like I smell custard-pies!"
An' nen he'll say,
"Clear out o' my way!
They's time fer work, an' time fer play!
Take yer dough, an' run, child, run!
Er she cain't git no cookin' done!"

Wunst our hired girl, when she
Got the supper, an' we all et,
An' it wuz night, an' Ma an' me
An' Pa went wher' the "Social" met,--
An' nen when we come home, an' see
A light in the kitchen door, an' we
Heerd a maccordeun, Pa says, "Lan'--
O'-Gracious! who can her beau be?"
An' I marched in, an' 'Lizabuth Ann
Wuz parchin' corn fer The Raggedy Man!
Better say,
"Clear out o' the way!
They's time fer work, an' time fer play!
Take the hint, an' run, child, run!
Er we cain't git no courtin' done!"

by James Whitcomb Riley | |


 Granny's come to our house,
 And ho! my lawzy-daisy!
All the childern round the place
 Is ist a-runnin' crazy!
Fetched a cake fer little Jake,
 And fetched a pie fer Nanny,
And fetched a pear fer all the pack
 That runs to kiss their Granny!

Lucy Ellen's in her lap,
 And Wade and Silas Walker
Both's a-ridin' on her foot,
 And 'Pollos on the rocker;
And Marthy's twins, from Aunt Marinn's,
 And little Orphant Annie,
All's a-eatin' gingerbread
 And giggle-un at Granny!

Tells us all the fairy tales
 Ever thought er wundered --
And 'bundance o' other stories --
 Bet she knows a hunderd! --
Bob's the one fer "Whittington,"
 And "Golden Locks" fer Fanny!
Hear 'em laugh and clap their hands,
 Listenin' at Granny!

"Jack the Giant-Killer" 's good;
 And "Bean-Stalk" 's another! --
So's the one of "Cinderell'"
 And her old godmother; --
That-un's best of all the rest --
 Bestest one of any, --
Where the mices scampers home
 Like we runs to Granny!

Granny's come to our house,
 Ho! my lawzy-daisy!
All the childern round the place
 Is ist a-runnin' crazy!
Fetched a cake fer little Jake,
 And fetched a pie fer Nanny,
And fetched a pear fer all the pack
 That runs to kiss their Granny!

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

A Life-Lesson

 There! little girl; don't cry! 
They have broken your doll, I know; 
And your tea-set blue, 
And your play-house, too, 
Are things of the long ago; 
But childish troubles will soon pass by.
-- There! little girl; don't cry! There! little girl; don't cry! They have broken your slate, I know; And the glad, wild ways Of your schoolgirl days Are things of the long ago; But life and love will soon come by.
-- There! little girl; don't cry! There! little girl; don't cry! They have broken your heart I know; And the rainbow gleams Of your youthful dreams Are things of the long ago; But Heaven holds all for which you sigh.
-- There! little girl; don't cry!

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

Wet-weather Talk

 It hain't no use to grumble and complane;
 It's jest as cheap and easy to rejoice.
-- When God sorts out the weather and sends rain, W'y rain's my choice.
Men ginerly, to all intents -- Although they're apt to grumble some -- Puts most theyr trust in Providence, And takes things as they come -- That is, the commonality Of men that's lived as long as me Has watched the world enugh to learn They're not the boss of this concern.
With some, of course, it's different -- I've saw young men that knowed it all, And didn't like the way things went On this terrestchul ball; -- But all the same, the rain, some way, Rained jest as hard on picnic day; Er, when they railly wanted it, It mayby wouldn't rain a bit! In this existunce, dry and wet Will overtake the best of men -- Some little skift o' clouds'll shet The sun off now and then.
-- And mayby, whilse you're wundern who You've fool-like lent your umbrell' to, And want it -- out'll pop the sun, And you'll be glad you hain't got none! It aggervates the farmers, too -- They's too much wet, er too much sun, Er work, er waitin' round to do Before the plowin' 's done: And mayby, like as not, the wheat, Jest as it's lookin' hard to beat, Will ketch the storm -- and jest about The time the corn's a-jintin' out.
These-here cy-clones a-foolin' round -- And back'ard crops! -- and wind and rain! -- And yit the corn that's wallerd down May elbow up again! -- They hain't no sense, as I can see, Fer mortuls, sech as us, to be A-faultin' Natchur's wise intents, And lockin' horns with Providence! It hain't no use to grumble and complane; It's jest as cheap and easy to rejoice.
-- When God sorts out the weather and sends rain, W'y, rain's my choice.

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

A Summer Afternoon

 A languid atmosphere, a lazy breeze,
With labored respiration, moves the wheat
From distant reaches, till the golden seas
Break in crisp whispers at my feet.
My book, neglected of an idle mind, Hides for a moment from the eyes of men; Or lightly opened by a critic wind, Affrightedly reviews itself again.
Off through the haze that dances in the shine The warm sun showers in the open glade, The forest lies, a silhouette design Dimmed through and through with shade.
A dreamy day; and tranquilly I lie At anchor from all storms of mental strain; With absent vision, gazing at the sky, "Like one that hears it rain.
" The Katydid, so boisterous last night, Clinging, inverted, in uneasy poise, Beneath a wheat-blade, has forgotten quite If "Katy DID or DIDN'T" make a noise.
The twitter, sometimes, of a wayward bird That checks the song abruptly at the sound, And mildly, chiding echoes that have stirred, Sink into silence, all the more profound.
And drowsily I hear the plaintive strain Of some poor dove .
Why, I can scarcely keep My heavy eyelids--there it is again-- "Coo-coo!"--I mustn't--"Coo-coo!"--fall asleep!

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

The Old Guitar

 Neglected now is the old guitar
And moldering into decay;
Fretted with many a rift and scar
That the dull dust hides away,
While the spider spins a silver star
In its silent lips to-day.
The keys hold only nerveless strings-- The sinews of brave old airs Are pulseless now; and the scarf that clings So closely here declares A sad regret in its ravelings And the faded hue it wears.
But the old guitar, with a lenient grace, Has cherished a smile for me; And its features hint of a fairer face That comes with a memory Of a flower-and-perfume-haunted place And a moonlit balcony.
Music sweeter than words confess, Or the minstrel's powers invent, Thrilled here once at the light caress Of the fairy hands that lent This excuse for the kiss I press On the dear old instrument.
The rose of pearl with the jeweled stem Still blooms; and the tiny sets In the circle all are here; the gem In the keys, and the silver frets; But the dainty fingers that danced o'er them-- Alas for the heart's regrets!-- Alas for the loosened strings to-day, And the wounds of rift and scar On a worn old heart, with its roundelay Enthralled with a stronger bar That Fate weaves on, through a dull decay Like that of the old guitar!

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

Almost Beyond Endurance

 I ain't a-goin' to cry no more, no more!
I'm got ear-ache, an' Ma can't make
It quit a-tall;
An' Carlo bite my rubber-ball
An' puncture it; an' Sis she take
An' poke' my knife down through the stable-floor
An' loozed it - blame it all!
But I ain't goin' to cry no more, no more!

An' Aunt Mame wrote she's comin',
an she can't -
Folks is come there! - An I don't care
She is my Aunt!
An' my eyes stings; an' I'm
Ist coughin' all the time,
An' hurts me so; an' where my side's so sore
Grampa felt where, an' he
Says `Mayby it's pleurasy!"
But I ain't goin' to cry no more, no more!

An' I clumbed up an' nen failed off the fence,
An' Herbert he ist laugh at me!
An my fi'-cents
It sticked in my tin bank, an' I ist store
Purt' nigh my thumbnail off,
a-tryin to get
It out - nen smash it! - An' it's in there yit!
But I ain't goin' to cry no more, no more!

Oo! I'm so wickud! - An' my breath's so hot -
Ist like I run an' don't res' none
But ist run on when I ought to not;
Yes, an' my chin
An' lip's all warpy, an' teeth's so fast,
An' 's a place in my throat I can't swaller past -
An' they all hurt so!
An' oh, my-oh!
I'm a-startin' ag'in -
I'm a-startin ag'in, but I won't, fer shore! -
I ist ain't goin' to cry no more, no more!

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

The Ripest Peach

 The ripest peach is highest on the tree -- 
And so her love, beyond the reach of me, 
Is dearest in my sight.
Sweet breezes, bow Her heart down to me where I worship now! She looms aloft where every eye may see The ripest peach is highest on the tree.
Such fruitage as her love I know, alas! I may not reach here from the orchard grass.
I drink the sunshine showered past her lips As roses drain the dewdrop as it drips.
The ripest peach is highest on the tree, And so mine eyes gaze upward eagerly.
Why -- why do I not turn away in wrath And pluck some heart here hanging in my path? -- Love's lower boughs bend with them -- but, ah me! The ripest peach is highest on the tree!

by James Whitcomb Riley | |


 Her hair was, oh, so dense a blur
Of darkness, midnight envied her;
And stars grew dimmer in the skies
To see the glory of her eyes;
And all the summer rain of light
That showered from the moon at night
Fell o'er her features as the gloom
Of twilight o'er a lily-bloom.
The crimson fruitage of her lips Was ripe and lush with sweeter wine Than burgundy or muscadine Or vintage that the burgher sips In some old garden on the Rhine: And I to taste of it could well Believe my heart a crucible Of molten love--and I could feel The drunken soul within me reel And rock and stagger till it fell.
And do you wonder that I bowed Before her splendor as a cloud Of storm the golden-sandaled sun Had set his conquering foot upon? And did she will it, I could lie In writhing rapture down and die A death so full of precious pain I'd waken up to die again.

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

A Parting Guest

 What delightful hosts are they -- 
 Life and Love! 
Lingeringly I turn away, 
 This late hour, yet glad enough 
They have not withheld from me 
 Their high hospitality.
So, with face lit with delight And all gratitude, I stay Yet to press their hands and say, "Thanks.
-- So fine a time! Good night.

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

There Was a Cherry-Tree

 There was a cherry-tree.
Its bloomy snows Cool even now the fevered sight that knows No more its airy visions of pure joy -- As when you were a boy.
There was a cherry-tree.
The Bluejay sat His blue against its white -- O blue as jet He seemed there then!-- But now -- Whoever knew He was so pale a blue! There was a cherry-tree -- our child-eyes saw The miracle:-- Its pure white snows did thaw Into a crimson fruitage, far too sweet But for a boy to eat.
There was a cherry-tree, give thanks and joy!-- There was a bloom of snow -- There was a boy -- There was a bluejay of the realest blue -- And fruit for both of you.

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

A Song of the Road

 O I will walk with you, my lad, whichever way you fare, 
You'll have me, too, the side o' you, with heart as light as air; 
No care for where the road you take's a-leadin' anywhere,-- 
It can but be a joyful ja'nt whilst you journey there.
The road you take's the path o' love, an' that's the bridth o' two-- An' I will walk with you, my lad -- O I will walk with you.
Ho! I will walk with you, my lad, Be weather black or blue Or roadsides frost or dew, my lad -- O I will walk with you.
Aye, glad, my lad, I'll walk with you, whatever winds may blow, Or summer blossoms stay our steps, or blinding drifts of snow; The way thay you set face an' foot 's the way that I will go, An' brave I'll be, abreast o' ye, the Saints and Angels know! With loyal hand in loyal hand, an' one heart made o' two, Through summer's gold, or winter's cold, It's I will walk with you.
Sure, I will walk with you, my lad, A love ordains me to,-- To Heaven's door, an' through, my lad.
O I will walk with you.

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

The Old Times Were the Best

 Friends, my heart is half aweary
Of its happiness to-night:
Though your songs are gay and cheery,
And your spirits feather-light,
There's a ghostly music haunting
Still the heart of every guest
And a voiceless chorus chanting
That the Old Times were the best.
CHORUS All about is bright and pleasant With the sound of song and jest, Yet a feeling's ever present That the Old Times were the best.

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

The Song of Yesterday

But yesterday 
I looked away 
O'er happy lands, where sunshine lay 
In golden blots, 
Inlaid with spots 
Of shade and wild forget-me-nots.
My head was fair With flaxen hair, And fragrant breezes, faint and rare, And, warm with drouth From out the south, Blew all my curls across my mouth.
And, cool and sweet, My naked feet Found dewy pathways through the wheat; And out again Where, down the lane, The dust was dimpled with the rain.
II But yesterday! -- Adream, astray, From morning's red to evening's dray, O'er dales and hills Of daffodils And lorn sweet-fluting whippoorwills.
I knew nor cares Nor tears nor prayers -- A mortal god, crowned unawares With sunset -- and A scepter-wand Of apple-blossoms in my hand! The dewy blue Of twilight grew To purple, with a star or two Whose lisping rays Failed in the blaze Of sudden fireflies through the haze.
III But yesterday I heard the lay Of summer birds, when I, as they With breast and wing, All quivering With life and love, could only sing.
My head was leant Where, with it, blent A maiden's, o'er her instrument; While all the night, From vale to height, Was filled with echoes of delight.
And all our dreams Were lit with gleams Of that lost land of reedy streams, Along whose brim Forever swim Pan's lilies, laughing up at him.
IV But yesterday! .
O blooms of May, And summer roses -- where away? O stars above; And lips of love, And all the honeyed sweets thereof! -- O lad and lass, And orchard pass, And briered lane, and daisied grass! O gleam and gloom, And woodland bloom, And breezy breaths of all perfume! -- No more for me Or mine shall be Thy raptures -- save in memory, -- No more -- no more -- Till through the Door Of Glory gleam the days of yore.

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

We to Sigh Instead of Sing

 "Rain and Rain! and rain and rain!" 
Yesterday we muttered 
Grimly as the grim refrain 
That the thunders uttered: 
All the heavens under cloud -- 
All the sunshine sleeping; 
All the grasses limply bowed 
With their weight of weeping.
Sigh and sigh! and sigh and sigh! Never end of sighing; Rain and rain for our reply -- Hopes half-drowned and dying; Peering through the window-pane, Naught but endless raining -- Endless sighing, and, as vain, Endlessly conmplaining.
Shine and shine! and shine and shine! Ah! to-day the splendor!-- All this glory yours and mine -- God! but God is tender! We to sigh instead of sing, Yesterday in sorrow, While the lord was fashioning This for our To-morrow!

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

A Poets Wooing

 I woo'd a woman once,
But she was sharper than an eastern wind.
Tennyson "What may I do to make you glad, To make you glad and free, Till your light smiles glance And your bright eyes dance Like sunbeams on the sea? Read some rhyme that is blithe and gay Of a bright May morn and a marriage day?" And she sighed in a listless way she had,-- "Do not read--it will make me sad!" "What shall I do to make you glad-- To make you glad and gay, Till your eyes gleam bright As the stars at night When as light as the light of day Sing some song as I twang the strings Of my sweet guitar through its wanderings?" And she sighed in the weary way she had,-- "Do not sing--it will make me sad!" "What can I do to make you glad-- As glad as glad can be, Till your clear eyes seem Like the rays that gleam And glint through a dew-decked tree?-- Will it please you, dear, that I now begin A grand old air on my violin?" And she spoke again in the following way,-- "Yes, oh yes, it would please me, sir; I would be so glad you'd play Some grand old march--in character,-- And then as you march away I will no longer thus be sad, But oh, so glad--so glad--so glad!"

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

To a Boy Whistling

 The smiling face of a happy boy
With its enchanted key
Is now unlocking in memory
My store of heartiest joy.
And my lost life again to-day, In pleasant colors all aglow, From rainbow tints, to pure white snow, Is a panorama sliding away.
The whistled air of a simple tune Eddies and whirls my thoughts around, As fairy balloons of thistle-down Sail through the air of June.
O happy boy with untaught grace! What is there in the world to give That can buy one hour of the life you live Or the trivial cause of your smiling face!

by James Whitcomb Riley | |

At Broad Ripple

 Oh luxury! Beyond the heat 
And dust of town, with dangling feet 
Astride the rock below the dam, 
In the cool shadows where the calm 
Rests on the stream again, and all 
Is silent save the waterfall,-- 
I bait my hook and cast my line, 
And feel the best of life is mine.
No high ambition can I claim -- I angle not for lordly game Of trout, or bass, or wary bream -- A black perch reaches the extreme Of my desires; and "goggle-eyes" Are not a thing that I despise; A sunfish, or a "chub," or a "cat"-- A "silver-side"-- yea, even that! In eloquent tranquility The waters lisp and talk to me.
Sometimes, far out, the surface breaks, As some proud bass an instant shakes His glittering armor in the sun, And romping ripples, one by one, Come dallyiong across the space Where undulates my smiling face.
The river's story flowing by, Forever sweet to ear and eye, Forever tenderly begun -- Forever new and never done.
Thus lulled and sheltered in a shade Where never feverish cares invade, I bait my hook and cast my line, And feel the best of life is mine.