17+ Best James Whitcomb Riley Poems You Must Read

James Whitcomb Riley was an American writer, poet, and best-selling author. During his lifetime he was known as the “Hoosier Poet” and “Children’s Poet” for his dialect works and his children’s poetry. His poems tend to be humorous or sentimental.

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Famous James Whitcomb Riley Poems

The Jaybird

The Jaybird he’s my favorite
Of all the birds they is!
I think he’s quite a stylish sight
In that blue suit of his:
An’ when he’ lights an’ shuts his wings,
His coat’s a ‘cutaway’–
I guess it’s only when he sings
You’d know he wuz a jay.

I like to watch him when he’s lit
In top of any tree,
‘Cause all birds git wite out of it
When he ‘lights, an’ they see
How proud he act’, an’ swell an’ spread
His chest out more an’ more,
An’ raise the feathers on his head
Like it’s cut pompadore!

The Ancient Printman

‘O Printerman of sallow face,
And look of absent guile,
Is it the ‘copy’ on your ‘case’
That causes you to smile?
Or is it some old treasure scrap
You cull from Memory’s file?

‘I fain would guess its mystery–
For often I can trace
A fellow dreamer’s history
Whene’er it haunts the face;
Your fancy’s running riot
In a retrospective race!

‘Ah, Printerman, you’re straying
Afar from ‘stick’ and type–
Your heart has ‘gone a-maying,’
And you taste old kisses, ripe
Again on lips that pucker
At your old asthmatic pipe!

‘You are dreaming of old pleasures
That have faded from your view;
And the music-burdened measures
Of the laughs you listen to
Are now but angel-echoes–
O, have I spoken true?’

The ancient Printer hinted
With a motion full of grace
To where the words were printed
On a card above his ‘case,’–
‘I am deaf and dumb!’ I left him
With a smile upon his face.

That Other Maud Muller

Maud Muller worked at making hay,
And cleared her forty cents a day.

Her clothes were coarse, but her health was fine,
And so she worked in the sweet sunshine

Singing as glad as a bird in May
‘Barbara Allen’ the livelong day.

She often glanced at the far-off town,
And wondered if eggs were up or down.

And the sweet song died of a strange disease,
Leaving a phantom taste of cheese,

And an appetite and a nameless ache
For soda-water and ginger cake.

The judge rode slowly into view–
Stopped his horse in the shade and threw

His fine-cut out, while the blushing Maud
Marveled much at the kind he ‘chawed.’

‘He was dry as a fish,’ he said with a wink,
‘And kind o’ thought that a good square drink

Would brace him up.’ So the cup was filled
With the crystal wine that old spring spilled;

And she gave it him with a sun-browned hand.
‘Thanks,’ said the judge in accents bland;

‘A thousand thanks! for a sweeter draught,
From a fairer hand’–but there he laughed.

And the sweet girl stood in the sun that day,
And raked the judge instead of the hay.

Romancin’

I’ b’en a-kindo musin’, as the feller says, and I’m
About o’ the conclusion that they ain’t no better time,
When you come to cipher on it, than the times we used to know
When we swore our first ‘dog-gone-it’ sorto solem’-like and low!

You git my idy, do you?–Little tads, you understand–
Jes’ a wishin’ thue and thue you that you on’y was a man.–
Yit here I am, this minute, even forty, to a day,
And fergittin’ all that’s in it, wishin’ jes’ the other way!

I hain’t no hand to lectur’ on the times, er dimonstrate
Whur the trouble is, er hector and domineer with Fate,–
But when I git so flurried, and so pestered-like and blue,
And so rail owdacious worried, let me tell you what I do!–

I jes’ gee-haw the hosses, and unhook the swingle-tree,
Whur the hazel-bushes tosses down their shadders over me,
And I draw my plug o’ navy, and I climb the fence, and set
Jes’ a-thinkin’ here, ‘y gravy! till my eyes is wringin’-wet!

Tho’ I still kin see the trouble o’ the present, I kin see–
Kindo like my sight was double–all the things that used to be;
And the flutter o’ the robin, and the teeter o’ the wren
Sets the willer branches bobbin ‘howdy-do’ thum Now to Then!

The deadnin’ and the thicket’s jes’ a bilin’ full of June,
Thum the rattle o’ the cricket, to the yallar-hammer’s tune;
And the catbird in the bottom, and the sap-suck on the snag,
Seems ef they cain’t–od-rot’em!–jes’ do nothin’ else but brag!

They’s music in the twitter of the bluebird and the jay,
And that sassy little critter jes’ a-peckin’ all the day;
They’s music in the ‘flicker,’ and they’s music in the thrush,
And they’s music in the snicker o’ the chipmunk in the brush!

They’s music all around me!–And I go back, in a dream–
Sweeter yit than ever found me fast asleep–and in the stream
That used to split the medder whur the dandylions growed,
I stand knee-deep, and redder than the sunset down the road.

Then’s when I’ b’en a-fishin’!–and they’s other fellers, too,
With their hickry poles a-swishin’ out behind ’em; and a few
Little ‘shiners’ on our stringers, with their tails tiptoein’ bloom,
As we dance ’em in our fingers all the happy journey home.

I kin see us, true to Natur’, thum the time we started out
With a biscuit and a ‘tater in our little ’roundabout!’
I kin see our lines a-tanglin’, and our elbows in a jam,
And our naked legs a-danglin’ thum the apern of the dam.

I kin see the honeysuckle climbin’ up around the mill;
And kin hear the worter chuckle, and the wheel a-growlin’ still;
And thum the bank below it I kin steal the old canoe,
And jes’ git in and row it like the miller used to do.

W’y, I git my fancy focussed on the past so mortal plain
I kin even smell the locus’-blossoms bloomin’ in the lane;
And I hear the cow-bells clinkin’ sweeter tunes ‘n ‘money musk’
Far the lightnin’-bugs a-blinkin’and a-dancin’in the dusk.

And so I keep on musin’, as the feller says, till I’m
Firm-fixed in the conclusion that they hain’t no better time,
When you come to cipher on it, than the old times,–and, I swear,
I kin wake and say ‘dog-gone-it!’ jes’ as soft as any prayer!

Regardin’ Terry Hut

Sence I tuk holt o’ Gibbses’ Churn
And be’n a-handlin’ the concern,
I’ve travelled round the grand old State
Of Indiany, lots, o’ late–!
I’ve canvassed Crawferdsville and sweat
Around the town o’ Layfayette;
I’ve saw a many a County-seat
I ust to think was hard to beat:
At constant dreenage and expense
I’ve worked Greencastle and Vincennes–
Drapped out o’ Putnam into Clay,
Owen, and on down thataway
Plum into Knox, on the back-track
Fer home ag’in– and glad I’m back–!
I’ve saw these towns, as I say– but
They’s none ‘at beats old Terry Hut!

It’s more’n likely you’ll insist
I claim this ’cause I’m prejudist,
Bein’ born’d here in ole Vygo
In sight o’ Terry Hut–; but no,
Yer clean dead wrong–! And I maintain
They’s nary drap in ary vein
O’ mine but what’s as free as air
To jest take issue with you there–!
‘Cause, boy and man, fer forty year,
I’ve argied ag’inst livin’ here,
And jawed around and traded lies
About our lack o’ enterprise,
And tuk and turned in and agreed
All other towns was in the lead,
When– drat my melts–! They couldn’t cut
No shine a-tall with Terry Hut!

Take even, statesmanship, and wit,
And ginerel git-up-and-git,
Old Terry Hut is sound clean through–!
Turn old Dick Thompson loose, er Dan
Vorehees– and where’s they any man
Kin even hold a candle to
Their eloquence–? And where’s as clean
A fi-nan-seer as Rile’ McKeen–
Er puorer, in his daily walk,
In railroad er in racin’ stock!
And there’s ‘Gene Debs– a man ‘at stands
And jest holds out in his two hands
As warm a heart as ever beat
Betwixt here and the Jedgement Seat–!
All these is reasons why I putt
Sich bulk o’ faith in Terry Hut.

So I’ve come back, with eyes ‘at sees
My faults, at last–, to make my peace
With this old place, and truthful’ swear–
Like Gineral Tom Nelson does–,
‘They hain’t no city anywhere
On God’s green earth lays over us!’
Our city government is grand–
‘Ner is they better farmin’-land
Sun-kissed–‘ as Tom goes on and says–
‘Er dower’d with sich advantages!’
And I’ve come back, with welcome tread,
From journeyin’s vain, as I have said,
To settle down in ca’m content,
And cuss the towns where I have went,
And brag on ourn, and boast and strut
Around the streets o’ Terry Hut!

Song

Why do I sing–Tra-la-la-la-la!
Glad as a King?–Tra-la-la-la-la!
Well, since you ask,–
I have such a pleasant task,
I can not help but sing!

‘Why do I smile–Tra-la-la-la-la!
Working the while?–Tra-la-la-la-la!
Work like this is play,–
So I’m playing all the day–
I can not help but smile!

‘So, If you please–Tra-la-la-la-la!
Live at your ease!–Tra-la-la-la-la!
You’ve only got to turn,
And, you see, its bound to churn–
I can not help but please!’

The farmer pondered and scratched his head,
Reading over each mystic word.–
‘Some o’ the Dreamer’s work!’ he said–
‘Ah, here’s more–and name and date
In his hand-write’!’–And the good man read,–
”Patent applied for, July third,
Eighteen hundred and forty-eight’!’
The fragment fell from his nerveless grasp–
His awed lips thrilled with the joyous gasp:
‘I see the p’int to the whole concern,–
He’s studied out a patent churn!’

Sleep

Thou drowsy god, whose blurred eyes, half awink
Muse on me–, drifting out upon thy dreams,
I lave my soul as in enchanted streams
Where revelling satyrs pipe along the brink,
And tipsy with the melody they drink,
Uplift their dangling hooves, and down the beams
Of sunshine dance like motes. Thy languor seems
An ocean-depth of love wherein I sink
Like some fond Argonaut, right willingly–,
Because of wooing eyes upturned to mine,
And siren-arms that coil their sorcery
About my neck, with kisses so divine,
The heavens reel above me, and the sea
Swallows and licks its wet lips over me.

Silence

Thousands of thousands of hushed years ago,
Out on the edge of Chaos, all alone
I stood on peaks of vapor, high upthrown
Above a sea that knew nor ebb nor flow,
Nor any motion won of winds that blow,
Nor any sound of watery wail or moan,
Nor lisp of wave, nor wandering undertone
Of any tide lost in the night below.
So still it was, I mind me, as I laid
My thirsty ear against mine own faint sigh
To drink of that, I sipped it, half afraid
‘Twas but the ghost of a dead voice spilled by
The one starved star that tottered through the shade
And came tiptoeing toward me down the sk

September Dark

1
The air falls chill;
The whippoorwill
Pipes lonesomely behind the Hill:
The dusk grows dense,
The silence tense;
And lo, the katydids commence.

2
Through shadowy rifts
Of woodland lifts
The low, slow moon, and upward drifts,
While left and right
The fireflies’ light
Swirls eddying in the skirts of Night.

3
O Cloudland gray
And level lay
Thy mists across the face of Day!
At foot and head,
Above the dead
O Dews, weep on uncomforted!

Scraps

There’s a habit I have nurtured,
From the sentimental time
When my life was like a story,
And my heart a happy rhyme,–
Of clipping from the paper,
Or magazine, perhaps,
The idle songs of dreamers,
Which I treasure as my scraps.

They hide among my letters,
And they find a cozy nest
In the bosom of my wrapper,
And the pockets of my vest;
They clamber in my fingers
Till my dreams of wealth relapse
In fairer dreams than Fortune’s
Though I find them only scraps.

Sometimes I find, in tatters
Like a beggar, form as fair
As ever gave to Heaven
The treasure of a prayer;
And words all dim and faded,
And obliterate in part,
Grow into fadeless meanings
That are printed on the heart.

Sometimes a childish jingle
Flings an echo, sweet and clear,
And thrills me as I listen
To the laughs I used to hear;
And I catch the gleam of faces,
And the glimmer of glad eyes
That peep at me expectant
O’er the walls of Paradise.

O syllables of measure!
Though you wheel yourselves in line,
And await the further order
Of this eager voice of mine;
You are powerless to follow
O’er the field my fancy maps,
So I lead you back to silence
Feeling you are only scraps.

Reach Your Hand To Me

Reach your hand to me, my friend,
With its heartiest caress–
Sometime there will come an end
To its present faithfulness–
Sometime I may ask in vain
For the touch of it again,
When between us land or sea
Holds it ever back from me.

Sometime I may need it so,
Groping somewhere in the night,
It will seem to me as though
Just a touch, however light,
Would make all the darkness day,
And along some sunny way
Lead me through an April-shower
Of my tears to this fair hour.

O the present is too sweet
To go on forever thus!
Round the corner of the street
Who can say what waits for us?–
Meeting–greeting, night and day,
Faring each the self-same way–
Still somewhere the path must end.–
Reach your hand to me, my friend!

Proem

Where are they– the Afterwhiles–
Luring us the lengthening miles
Of our lives? Where is the dawn
With the dew across the lawn
Stroked with eager feet the far
Way the hills and valleys are?
Were the sun that smites the frown
Of the eastward-gazer down?
Where the rifted wreaths of mist
O’er us, tinged with amethyst,
Round the mountain’s steep defiles?
Where are the afterwhiles?

Afterwhile– and we will go
Thither, yon, and too and fro–
From the stifling city streets
To the country’s cool retreats–
From the riot to the rest
Were hearts beat the placidest:
Afterwhile, and we will fall
Under breezy trees, and loll
In the shade, with thirsty sight
Drinking deep the blue delight
Of the skies that will beguile
Us as children– afterwhile.

Afterwhile– and one intends
To be gentler to his friends–,
To walk with them, in the hush
Of still evenings, o’er the plush
Of home-leading fields, and stand
Long at parting, hand in hand:
One, in time, will joy to take
New resolves for some one’s sake,
And wear then the look that lies
Clear and pure in other eyes–
We will soothe and reconcile
His own conscience– afterwhile.

Afterwhile– we have in view
A far scene to journey to–,
Where the old home is, and where
The old mother waits us there,
Peering, as the time grows late,
Down the old path to the gate–.
How we’ll click the latch that locks
In the pinks and hollyhocks,
And leap up the path once more
Where she waits us at the door–!
How we’ll greet the dear old smile,
And the warm tears– afterwhile!

Ah, the endless afterwhiles–!
Leagues on leagues, and miles on miles,
In distance far withdrawn,
Stretching on, and on, and on,
Till the fancy is footsore
And faints in the dust before
The last milestone’s granite face,
Hacked with: Here Beginneth Space.
O far glimmering worlds and wings,
Mystic smiles and beckonings,
Lead us through the shadowy aisles
Out into the afterwhiles.

Private Theatricals

A quite convincing axiom
Is, ‘Life is like a play’;
For, turning back its pages some
Few dog-eared years away,
I find where I
Committed my
Love-tale–with brackets where to sigh.

I feel an idle interest
To read again the page;
I enter, as a lover dressed,
At twenty years of age,
And play the part
With throbbing heart,
And all an actor’s glowing art.

And she who plays my Lady-love
Excels!–Her loving glance
Has power her audience to move–
I am her audience.–
Her acting tact,
To tell the fact,
‘Brings down the house’ in every act.

And often we defy the curse
Of storms and thunder-showers,
To meet together and rehearse
This little play of ours–
I think, when she
‘Makes love’ to me,
She kisses very naturally!

. . . . . .

Yes; it’s convincing–rather–
That ‘Life is like a play’:
I am playing ‘Heavy Father’
In a ‘Screaming Farce’ to-day,
That so ‘brings down
The house,’ I frown,
And fain would ‘ring the curtain down.’

Plain Sermons

I saw a man–and envied him beside–
Because of this world’s goods he had great store;
But even as I envied him, he died,
And left me envious of him no more.

I saw another man–and envied still–
Because he was content with frugal lot;
But as I envied him, the rich man’s will
Bequeathed him all, and envy I forgot.

Yet still another man I saw, and he
I envied for a calm and tranquil mind
That nothing fretted in the least degree–
Until, alas! I found that he was blind.

What vanity is envy! for I find
I have been rich in dross of thought, and poor
In that I was a fool, and lastly blind
For never having seen myself before

Pan

This Pan is but an idle god, I guess,
Since all the fair midsummer of my dreams
He loiters listlessly by woody streams,
Soaking the lush glooms up with laziness;
Or drowsing while the maiden-winds caress
Him prankishly, and powder him with gleams
Of sifted sunshine. And he ever seems
Drugged with a joy unutterable– unless
His low pipes whistle hints of it far out
Across the ripples to the dragon-fly
That like a wind-born blossom blown about,
Drops quiveringly down, as though to die–
Then lifts and wavers on, as if in doubt
Whether to fan his wings or fly without.

Over The Eyes Of Gladness

The voice of One hath spoken,
And the bended reed is bruised–
The golden bowl is broken,
And the silver cord is loosed.’

Over the eyes of gladness
The lids of sorrow fall,
And the light of mirth is darkened
Under the funeral pall.

The hearts that throbbed with rapture
In dreams of the future years,
Are wakened from their slumbers,
And their visions drowned in tears.

. . . . . . .
Two buds on the bough in the morning–
Twin buds in the smiling sun,
But the frost of death has fallen
And blighted the bloom of one.

One leaf of life still folded
Has fallen from the stem,
Leaving the symbol teaching
There still are two of them,–

For though–through Time’s gradations,
The LIVING bud may burst,–
The WITHERED one is gathered,
And blooms in Heaven first.

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