JANUARY
2001

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

01-11-01

The Buzz on James Whitcomb Riley's Poetry

The Hoosier Poet, as James Whitcomb Riley is known, wrote over 1,000 poems. Many of his poems are humorous, rustic and earthy looks at the past. Several of Riley's poems are alive with insects.

At least seven Riley poems are about insects. And at least two of the poems are about insects that created havoc in Riley's life. In "The Bumblebee," Riley manages to get stung and concludes that a bumble bee "wears out his welcome too quick fer me!" Of course, Riley should give credit where credit is due - it is the female bumble bee that stings.

Then there is the June-Bug. Riley seemed to have disdain for these insects. Especially when they showed up in his bedroom and disturbed his sleep. He wrote "Two Sonnets to the June-Bug" to document his dismay.

In "The Doodle-Bugs Charm," Riley recounts the day that his Uncle Sidney showed him the holes that doodlebugs dig in the soil. Doodlebugs are also called antlions, and the immatures dig holes in the soil that act as traps for insects. The trapped insects are food for the doodlebugs. The poem relates how you can get the doodlebugs to stick their heads out of their burrows at the bottom of the pit by yelling at them. According to Riley, his Uncle Sidney said to just yell, "Doodle-Bugs! Doodle-Bugs! Come up an' git some bread!"

Riley has a poem about a beekeeper named Fessler who may have been one of the early migratory beekeepers. Fessler, according to Riley, took his bees to Florida in the winter and came back to Indiana in the summer.

The sounds of insects play important roles in Riley's poetry. Katydid sounds put him to sleep ("The Katydid"). The cricket is compared to other musicians in "To the Cricket." In "Dusk Song - The Beetle" Riley uses the sound of flying beetles to characterize the evening: "The beetle booms adorn the glooms and bumps along the dusk."

Riley includes insects in over 100 other poems. Many times, it is the sound of the insects that warrants their inclusion in the poem. Consequently, there are lots of katydids, crickets, locusts (a common name for cicadas) and bees. We hear about the droning bee and the beesy hum. In "Song of Singing," Riley writes that the bumble bee is among the animals "Who sing because you want to sing!"

Dragonflies are also featured in the poems of Riley. In "The Brook-Song," Riley writes:
            "Little brook - sing a song
            Of a leaf that sailed along
            Down the golden-braided center of your current swift and strong,
            And the dragon-fly that lit
            On the tilting rim of it,
            And rode away and wasn't scared a bit."

And in the "The Old Swimmin'-Hole," the dragonfly is called a snake-feeder:
            "And the snake-feeder's four gauzy wings flutter by
            Like the ghost of a daisy dropped out of the sky,"

Snake-feeder and snake doctor are other common names for the dragonflies. These names reflect the habit of the dragonflies of sometimes perching on the heads of water snakes as they swim in ponds or creeks.

Of course, Riley also included fireflies in his poetry. In "You May Not Remember" he writes:
            "How the fireflies in the twilight
            Drifted by like flakes of starlight,
            Till o'ver floods of flashing moonlight
            They were wave-like swept away."

In "Old Granny Dusk," Riley writes that when the sun goes down "the lightnin'-bugs all blink at her." Like many people, Riley used both the term lightning bug and firefly for these luminous beetles. He also included the immature stages - the glowworm - in a poem or two. In "Home at Night" we read: 
            "The glowworm crawls and clings and falls
            And glimmers down the garden walls."

It's probably not surprising that James Whitcomb Riley would include insects in his poetry. It's a natural for anyone who writes about nature and the past. After all, as Riley obviously appreciated, there is nothing more enduring than our encounters with insects - both good and bad!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox