MARCH
1996

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

03-14-96

Poetic Sounds of Insects

The sounds of nature are important elements in the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley. When read aloud you can almost hear the sounds of nature in Riley's poems. For instance, in "Old Bob White" Riley makes it clear that the common name for this quail is based on its call:  Hear him whistle, --"Old -- Bob -- White!"  "Whistles alluz ist the same-- So's we won't fergit his name!--  Hear him say it? -- "Old -- Bob -- White!"

Insects also make characteristic and sometimes difficult-to-imitate sounds. Riley, however, does his best to make the sounds come to life in his poetry. In "Summer-Time and Winter-Time" he writes: "I can hear the katydids, -- 'Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!'

In "The Katydid," Riley relates that many rural children go to sleep to the serenade of this singing insect. In the second stanza Riley writes:

"I listen when
They cheep again;
And so, I think, they're singing then!
But, no; I'm wrong, --
The sound's too long
And all-alike to be a song!"

He also describes the katydid song as a rasp in the line:

"The katydid is rasping at
The silence from the tangled broom..."

Another insect songster that receives attention from Riley is the cricket. In "Dream-March" the cricket's sound is described as "rat-ta-tat!" In "No Boy Knows" the cricket sound is a cheep. In "A song" we learn:

"The robin pipes when the sun is here,
And the cricket chirrups the whole night through."

In "The Pixy People," we read:

"Crickets in the clover
Clattered clear and strong..."

Also:

"And the whispered chuckle
Of the katydid
Shook the honeysuckle-
Blossoms where he hid."

Riley also includes the sound of insect flight in his poems. In "Dream-March" he writes: "Like the buzz o' bumble wings." And he describes the bee sound as a drone in the line: "And the golden-banded bees, Droning over the flowery leas." The sound of the flying grasshopper is whirring wings. One of the most interesting of Riley's descriptions for flying insects is of the beetle, which he describes as a boom. He also recognizes that beetles are not the most agile of insect aerialists, all of which is included in this line:

"The beetle booms adorn the glooms
And bumps along the dusk."

For James Whitcomb Riley, the sound of an insect was poetry to his ears.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann