Tuesday, November 2, 2010

'When The Frost Is On The Punkin...'

James Whitcomb Riley by John Singer Sargent
In my junior year of high school, New York State required all students to take an English Regent to test our proficiency in the subject. One section of the exam was recognizing and completing lines of poetry and we spent the better part of the year reading and memorizing whole stanzas, lines and authors. My third year English teacher was a nun, Sister Michele, and she drilled us so well that to this day I can recite parts and in some cases entire  poems that were part of the curriculum.

Around this time of the year, I always think of the poem 'When the Frost is on The Punkin' by James Whitcomb Riley. I liked it back then and still do because the imagery of the words painted such a realistic picture in my mind of a Midwest farm complete with corn-husky dialect in the days before winter set in, so unlike the area and people where I was growing up on Long Island.

What I didn't know was that this poem had a story, one that's meaningful today. A story of this poet as a  young man with a dream and the tenacity to follow it despite misdirection, setbacks and parental disapproval but ultimately a story of a chance event that changed the course of his life. This is from jameswhitcombriley.com
There is an interesting incident about how Riley’s job was once saved because he had written “When the Frost Is On the Punkin, and the Fodder’s In the Shock.”  It is in a book written by Riley’s friend John A. Howland entitled, “James Whitcomb Riley: Prose and Pictures.”
     Riley, as a young Greenfield man, had had a hard time finding a niche in the world since he did not care to follow his father in the practice of law.  He sold Bibles, painted signs, entertained in a medicine show, always coming to a dead end.  His mother died in 1870 and he felt he could not bear to stay in Greenfield so he went here and there seeking newspaper employment.  He ran into E.B. Martindale of "The Indianapolis Journal" whom he later called, “my first literary patron,” who added him to the staff of the paper to write poetry.  Some of these poems appeared on the first page of the Journal under the nom de plume “Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone,” supposedly an old farmer.  As they were well received, Riley emerged from under his disguise, writing poems such as “When the Frost is on the Punkin.”
     In a short while after Riley joined the paper, a gentleman named Halford was appointed manager of the Journal.  One of his first ideas was to cut down on expenses of the paper, and he was considering Riley as his first victim to get the ax.  It so happened that a political convention was held in Indianapolis at this very time.  One of the candidates nominated for office was a big burly fellow who had never made a speech in his life
     When he got up to accept his nomination, his mind went blank and he could not utter a word.  The pounding and cheering went on until in desperation he blurted out, “The ticket you have nominated here is going to win “when the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.”  This Riley poem had just been published a few days before. in the newspaper.
     The applause that greeted these words showed that most of these prominent men had read Riley’s work and approved of it.  Halford kept him on, and he became an established poet. 
      Riley saved his job by a landscape!
Here then is the poem. Keep an eye on your pumpkin for surely in the next few weeks the frost will appear and the golden days of autumn will be behind us with the long stretch of winter ahead.

When the Frost is on the Punkin
by James Whitcomb Riley

WHEN the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it's then's the times a feller is a-feelin' at his best,
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

They's something kindo' harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here--
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin'-birds and buzzin' of the bees;
But the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur' that no painter has the colorin' to mock--
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin' of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries--kindo' lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin' sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below--the clover over-head!--
O, it sets my hart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!

Then your apples all is gethered
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin' 's over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too! ...
I don't know how to tell it--but ef sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on me--
I'd want to 'commodate 'em--all the whole-indurin' flock--
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!

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