Mr. Riley's Poetry
EVEN if Mr. Riley’s poetry — which, along with his prose, now has the distinction of a beautiful uniform edition (Scribners) — had no claim to distinction in itself, the fact of its unrivaled popularity would challenge consideration. But, fortunately, his work does not depend on so frail a tenure of fame as the vogue of a season or the life of a fad. The qualities which secure for it a wider reading and a heartier appreciation than are accorded to any other living American poet are rooted deep in human nature ; they are preëminently qualities of wholesomeness and common sense, those qualities of steady and conservative cheerfulness which ennoble the average man, and in which the man of exceptional culture is too often lacking. Its lovers are the ingenuous home-keeping hearts, on whose sobriety and humor the national character is based. And yet, one has not said enough when one says it is poetry of the domestic affections, poetry of sentiment; for it is much more than that.
Poetry which is free from the unhappy spirit of the age, free from dejection, from doubt, from material cynicism, neither tainted by the mould of sensuality nor wasted by the maggot of “reform,” is no common product, in these days. So much of our art and literature is ruined by self-consciousness, running to the artificial and the tawdry. It is the slave either of commercialism, imitative, ornate, and insufferably tiresome, or of didacticism, irresponsible and dull. But Mr. Riley at his best is both original and sane. He seems to have accomplished that most difficult feat, the devotion of one’s self to an art without any deterioration of health. He is full of the sweetest vitality, the soundest merriment. His verse is not strained with an overburden of philosophy, on the one hand, nor debauched with maudlin sentimentalism, on the other. Its robust gayety has all the fascination of artlessness and youth. It neither argues, nor stimulates, nor denounces, nor exhorts ; it only touches and entertains us. And after all, few things are more humanizing than innocent amusement.
It is because of this quality of abundant good nature, familiar, serene, homely, that it seems to me no exaggeration to call Mr. Riley the typical American poet of the day. True, he does not represent the cultivated and academic classes ; he reflects nothing of modern thought; but in his unruffled temper and dry humor, occasionally flippant on the surface, but never facetious at heart, he might stand very well for the normal American character in his view of life and his palpable enjoyment of it. Most foreign critics are on the lookout for the appearance of something novel and unconventional from America, forgetting that the laws of art do not change with longitude. They seize now on this writer, now on that, as the eminent product of democracy. But there is nothing unconventional about Mr. Riley. “ He is like folks,”as an old New England farmer said of Whittier. And if the typical poet of democracy in America is to be the man who most nearly represents average humanity throughout the length and breadth of this country, who most completely expresses its humor, its sympathy, its intelligence, its culture, and its common sense, and yet is not without a touch of original genius sufficient to stamp his utterances, then Mr. James Whitcomb Riley has a just claim to that title.
He is unique among American men of letters (or poets, one might better say; for strictly speaking he is not a man of letters at all) in that he has originality of style, and yet is entirely native and homely. Whitman was original, but he was entirely prophetic and remote, appealing only to the few ; Longfellow had style, but his was the voice of our collegiate and cultivated classes. It is not a question of rank or comparison ; it is merely a matter of definitions. It is the position rather than the magnitude of any particular and contemporary star that one is interested in fixing. To determine its magnitude, a certain quality of endurance must be taken into account; and to observe this quality often requires considerable time. Quite apart, then, from Mr. Riley’s relative merit in the great anthology of English poetry, he has a very definite and positive place in the history of American letters as the first widely representative poet of the American people.
He is professedly a home-keeping, home-loving poet, with the purpose of the imaginative realist, depending upon common sights and sounds for his inspirations, and engrossed with the significance of facts. Like Mr. Kipling, whose idea of perpetual bliss is a heaven where every artist shall " draw the thing as he sees it, for the God of things as they are,” Mr. Riley exclaims: —
They don’t need no excuse !
Don’t tetch 'em up as the poets does,
Till they ’re all too fine fer use ! ”
And again, in his lines on A Southern Singer: —
Grant your high grace and wit, but we
Most honor your simplicity.”
In the proem to the volume Poems here at Home there occurs a similar invocation, and a test of excellence is proposed which may well be taken as the gist of his own artistic purpose : —
Jes’ as they air — in Country and in Town ? —
Sowed thick as clods is ’crost the fields and lanes,
Er these ’ere little hop-toads when it rains!
Who ’ll 'voice’ ’em ? as I heerd a feller say
’At speechified on Freedom, t’other day,
And soared the Eagle tel, it ’peared to me,
She was n’t bigger ’n a bumble-bee !
O’ poetry is somepin’ Yours and Mine —
Somepin’ with live-stock in it, and out-doors,
And old crick-bottoms, snags, and sycamores !
Putt weeds in — pizenvines, and underbresh,
As well as johnny-jump-ups, all so fresh
And sassy-like ! — and groan’-squir’ls, — yes, and 'We,’
As sayin’ is, — 'We, Us and Company,’ ”
In the lines Right here at Home the same strain recurs, like the very burden of the poet’s life-song : —
Fer me and you and plain old happiness:
We hear the World’s lots grander — likely so, —
We ’ll take the World’s word for it and not go.
We know its ways ain’t our ways, so we’ll stay
Right here at home, boys, where we know the way,
Man ’a plenty rich enough — and knows it, too,
And’s got a’ extry dollar, any time,
To boost a feller up ’at wants to climb,
And’s got the git-up in him to go in
And git there, like he port’ nigh allus kin! ”
It is in this spirit that by far the greater part of his work, the telling and significant part of it, is conceived. The whole tatterdemalion company of his Tugg Martins, Jap Millers, Armazindys, Bee Fesslers, and their comrades, as rollicking and magnetic as Shakespeare’s own wonderful populace, he finds “ right here at home ; ” nothing human is alien to him ; indeed, there is something truly Elizabethan, something spacious and robust, in his humanity, quite exceptional to our fashion-plate standards. In the same wholesome, glad frame of mind, too, he deals with nature, — mingling the keenest, most loving observation with the most familiar modes of speech. An artist in his ever sensitive appreciation and impressionability, never missing a phase or mood of natural beauty, he has the added ability so necessary to the final touch of illusion, — the power of ease, the power of making his most casual word seem inevitable, and his most inevitable word seem casual. It is in this, I think, that he differs from all his rivals in the field of familiar and dialect poetry. Other writers are as familiar as he, and many as truly inspired ; but none combines to such a degree the homespun phrase with the lyric feeling. His only compeer in this regard is Lowell, in the brilliant Biglow Papers and several other less known but not less admirable Chaucerian sketches of New England country life. Indeed, in humor, in native eloquence, in vivacity, Mr. Riley closely resembles Lowell, though differing from that bookman in his training and inclination, and naturally, as a consequence, in his range and treatment of subjects. But the tide of humanity, so strong in Lowell, is at flood, too, in the Hoosier poet. It is this humane character, preserving all the rugged sweetness in the elemental type of man, which can save us at last as a people from the ravaging taint of charlatanism, frivolity, and greed.
But we must not leave our subject without discriminating more closely between several sorts of Mr. Riley’s poetry ; for there is as much difference between his dialect and his classic English (in point of poetic excellence, I mean) as there is between the Scotch and the English of Burns. Like Burns, he is a lover of the human and the simple, a lover of green fields and blowing flowers ; and like Burns, he is far more at home, far more easy and felicitous, in his native Doric than in the colder Attic speech of Milton and Keats.
This is so, it seems to me, for two reasons. In the first place, the poet is dealing with the subject matter he knows best; and in the second place, he is using the medium of expression in which he has a lifelong facility. The art of poetry is far too delicate and too difficult to be practiced successfully without the most consummate and almost unconscious mastery of the language employed ; so that a poet will hardly ever write with anything like distinction or convincing force in any but his mother tongue. An artist’s command of his medium must be so intimate and exquisite that his thought can find adequate expression in it as easily as in the lifting of a finger or the moving of an eyelid. Otherwise he is self-conscious, unnatural, false ; and, hide it as he may, we feel the awkwardness and indecision in his work. He who treats of subjects which he knows only imperfectly cannot be true to nature; while he who employs some means of expression which he only imperfectly controls cannot be true to himself. The best art requires the fulfillment of both these severe demands ; they are the cardinal virtues of art. Disregard of the first produces the dilettante ; disregard of the second produces the charlatan. That either of these epithets would seem entirely incongruous, if applied to Mr. Riley, is a tribute to his thorough worth as a writer.
His verse, then, divides itself sharply into two kinds, the dialect and the conventional. But we have so completely identified him with the former manner that it is hard to estimate his work in the latter. It may be doubted, however, whether he would have reached his present eminence, had he confined his efforts to the strictly regulated forms of standard English. In poems like A Life Term and One Afternoon, for instance, there is smoothness, even grace of movement, but hardly that distinction which we call style, and little of the lyric plangency the author commands at his best; while very often in his use of authorized English there is a strangely marked reminiscence of older poets, as of Keats in A Water Color (not to speak of A Ditty of No Tone, written as a frankly imitative tribute of admiration for the author of the Ode to a Grecian Urn), or of Emerson in The All-Kind Mother. In only one of the dialect poems, on the other hand, so far as I recall them, is there any imitative note. His Nothin’ to Say has much of the atmosphere and feeling as well as the movement of Tennyson’s Northern Farmer. But for the most part, when Mr. Riley uses his own dialect, he is thoroughly original as well as effective. He has not only the lyrical impetus so needful to good poetry ; he has also the story - teller’s gift. And when we add to these two qualities an abundant share of whimsical humor, we have the equipment which has so justly given him wide repute.
All of these characteristics are brought into play in such poems as Fessler’s Bees, one of the fairest examples of Mr. Riley’s balladry at its best: —
When it come to handlin’ bees, —
Roll the sleeves up of his shirt
And wade in amongst the trees
Where a swarm ’u’d settle, and —
Blamedest man on top of dirt! —
Rake ’em with his naked hand
Right back in the hive ag’ in,
Jes’ as easy as you please ! ”
For Mr. Riley is a true balladist. He is really doing for the modern popular taste, here and now, what the old balladists did in their time. He is an entertainer. He has the ear of his audience. He knows their likes and dislikes, and humors them. His very considerable and very successful experience as a public reader of his own work has reinforced (one may guess) his natural modesty and love of people, and made him constantly regardful of their pleasure. So that we must look upon his verses as a most genuine and spontaneous expression of average poetic feeling as well as personal poetic inspiration.
Every artist’s work must be, necessarily, a more or less successful compromise between these two opposing and difficult conditions of achievement. The great artists are they who succeed at last in imposing upon others their own peculiar and novel conceptions of beauty. But these are only the few whom the gods favor beyond their fellows ; while for the rank and file of those who deal in the perishable wares of art a less ambitious standard may well be allowed. We must have our balladists as well as our bards, it seems ; and very fortunate is the day when we can have one with so much real spirit and humanity about him as Mr. Riley.
At times the pathos of the theme quite outweighs its homeliness, and lifts the author above the region of self-conscious art; the use of dialect drops away, and a creation of pure poetry comes to light, as in that irresistible elegy Little Haly, for example : —
'Little Haly,’sighs the clover; ‘Little
Haly,’ moans the bee ;
'Little Haly, little Haly,’calls the kill-dee at twilight,;
And the katydids and crickets hollers
'Haly’ all the night.”
In this powerful lyric there is a simple directness approaching the feeling of Greek poetry, and one cannot help regretting the few intrusions of bad grammar and distorted spelling. They are not necessary. The poem is so universal in its human appeal, it seems a pity to limit the range of its appreciation by hampering it with local peculiarities of speech.
At times, too, in his interpretations of nature, Mr. Riley lays aside his drollery and his drawling accent in exchange for an incisive power of phrase.
is an example of the keenness of fancy I refer to. Another is found in the closing phrase of one of the stanzas in A Country Pathway : —
The almost whispered warble from the
And takes a locust’s rasping voice and files
The silence to an edge.”
In The Flying Islands of the Night Mr. Riley has made his widest departure into the reign of whimsical imagination. Here he has retained that liberty of unshackled speech, that freedom and ease of diction, which mark his more familiar themes, and at the same time has entered an entirely fresh field for him, a sort of grown-up fairyland. There are many strains of fine poetry in this miniature play, which show Mr. Riley’s lyrical faculty at its best. In one instance there is a peculiar treatment of the octosyllabic quatrain, where he has chosen (one cannot guess why) to print it in the guise of blank verse. It is impossible, however, to conceal the true swing of the lines.
Because her face was fair. Perhaps because
Her eyes were blue and wore a weary air.
Perhaps ! Perhaps because her limpid face
Was eddied with a restless tide, wherein
The dimples found no place to anchor and
Abide. Perhaps because her tresses beat
A froth of gold about her throat, and poured
In splendor to the feet that ever seemed
Afloat. Perhaps because of that wild way
Her sudden laughter overleapt propriety ;
Or — who will say ? — perhaps the way she wept.”
It almost seems as if Mr. Riley, with his bent for jesting and his habit of wearing the cap and bells, did not dare be as poetical as he could ; and when a serious lyric came to him, he must hide it under the least lyrical appearance, as he has done here. But that, surely, if it be so, is a great injustice to himself. He might well attempt the serious as well as the comic side of poetry, remembering that “ when the half-gods go, the gods arrive.”