Category Archive 'James Whitcomb Riley'

04 Nov 2013

“When the Frost Is on the Punkin”

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When we get up in the morning recently we’ve been finding the first frosts of the season here on the farm in Central Pennsylvania. I looked out the window this morning and the opening lines of the old poem came into my head.

“James Whitcomb Riley,” I thought, but I wasn’t positive that I was right, and I couldn’t remember any of it after “the struttin’ turkey-cock.”

When I looked it up, I found that I had indeed remembered the name of the poet rightly. It was James Whitcomb Riley (1853–1916).

Imagine a time in America when you could become rich and famous delivering readings all over the country and at major universities of poetry written in rustic American dialect.

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“When the Frost is on the Punkin”

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 the time 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 blossoms 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 overhead!—
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, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the cellar-floor in red and yaller heaps;
And your cider-makin’s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With theyr mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and sausage too!…
I don’t know how to tell it—but ef such 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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In my day, 50 years ago, elementary school English instruction included memorizing lots of old chestnut poems like this from standard reader anthologies. From what I understand, the educational powers-that-be have since concluded that memorizing poetry is bad for children and they have moved in a supposedly more creative and spontaneous direction.

It seem a pity. There was a time when the likes of Longfellow, Whittier, and Riley were part of a univerally-shared American culture. What they seem to be sharing today are a collection of accusatory sob stories, all about slavery, discrimination, and just how mean everyone was to today’s privileged victim groups in the wicked American past. “The kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock” has given way to left-wing agitprop.


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