NOVEMBER
1998

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

11-12-98

The Insects in Children's Poems by James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier Poet, is well known for his poems for children. His book "Joyful Poems for Children” was first published in 1892 and has been reprinted many times.

Riley's collection of poems for children include some of his best-known works. Some of the poems are about people. The Raggedy Man, Little Orphant Annie and Aunt Mary from "Out to Old Aunt Mary's” are personalities that most children recognize.

Many of Riley's poems are childhood memories: for instance, that wonderful poem about the fall season that begins "When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.” Going fishing in "The Fishing Party,” or swimming at "The Old Swimmin'-Hole” or just walking in a stream in "The Brook Song” are sweet memories of carefree days of our youth.

Riley also writes about animals. "The Pet Coon,” "The Tree Toad,” "The Yellow Bird” and "Old Bob White” recognize the importance of animals to children.

Ever a student of nature, Riley also sprinkles his verses with references to insects. He describes the sound of katydids as "cheep.” In "Summer-time and Winter-time,” he writes that in summer "Open eyes, or drowsy lids, ‘Wake or ‘most asleep, I can hear the katydids-Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! In "The Katydids,” Riley uses the sound of the katydids to put him to sleep.

In "The Old Swimmin'-Hole,” dragonflies are called snake-feeders.
"And the snake-feeders four gauzy wings fluttered by
Like the ghost of a daisy dropped out of the sky,
Or a wowned apple-blossom in the breeze's controle
As it cut acrost some orchurd to'rds the old swimmin'-hole.”

In "A Sudden Shower,” the plight of the insects in the rain is considered.
"The swallow dips beneath the eaves
And flirts his plumes and folds his wings;
And under the Catawba leaves
The caterpillar curls and clings.
The bumble bee is pelted down
The wet stem of the hollyhock;
And suddenly, in spattered brown,
The cricket leaps the garden-walk.”

In "Little Orphant Annie,” Riley uses the lack of insect activity as a sign of danger in these lines.
"An' you hear the crickets quit, an' the moon is gray,
An' the lightnin'- bugs in dew is all squenched away, -”

Riley also learned about bumble bees in a poem of that name. He learned as the first line says: "You better not fool with a bumble bee!-Ef you don't think they can sting-you'll see!” Riley experienced the truth about bees by grabbing one. This resulted in a stinger stuck in his skin, which was removed by the beloved Raggedy Man who admonished, "I told ye so!”

No doubt James Whitcomb Riley was stung by a bee, but it wasn't a bumble bee. The truth is that a bumble bee does not leave its stinger. That happens when a honey bee stings. Another entomological error also occurs in that poem. With apologies to Mr. Riley the poet, "He also called the bee a he, but in truth a stinging bee's a she!”

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox