Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Riley Just as He Is*


 

It is not at all surprising that we should have this little volume, put forth first in a limited way, and now regularly issued by Mr. Riley's publishers. His many admirers will be glad to possess it, for he is a man who elicits enthusiasm as well as admiration and makes a friend of every reader.

Riley is so entirely human and companionable, so genuine and unpretentious, that it is difficult for a personal acquaintance to regard him critically. One is inclined to forget his greatness. Whenever his name is mentioned, the first feeling must be a glow of personal enthusiasm, a welling of warm attachment for the man himself. To speak of him is to speak of one of the most delightful and lovable of comrades, and to recall the memories of many happy, careless hours; it only comes as a second thought that one of America's most distinguished poets has been mentioned. And the honor done to him in his own city and state must be most heartily indorsed by the whole country. Love of poetry may not be an especially eminent National trait, but love of fine manhood knows no lines of State or country.

There are different types of humorists and wits, and it must be admitted that many of them, upon casual acquaintance at least, seemed to have suffered through the professional use of their genius. They seem so easily to lose spontaneity, to become studied and forced, and, if one may say so, eminently tedious. One is almost tempted to declare that a great many of the so-called funny men in current literature have no genuine sense of humor at all. They have studied the practice of comedy and learned the attitude of the buffoon, but there is often not a grain of mirth in their tiresome efforts at brilliancy. They serve to fill the funny pages of our papers with their excruciating attempts at levity, but it is all a matter of desperation rather than exuberance. They must raise a laugh, if they perish in the attempt. The impression they give is anything but jovial. The clown who has no native talent for his calling is the sorriest spectacle in the world.

I don't know whether you would call Riley a typical American humorist; he's a typical American of the rare sort in whom the sense of humor is unfailing and abundant. He will sit with you by the hour and swap stories, or keep you in a simmer of joy with the absurd drolleries of his talk, and he will never once try to be funny; you are like to disgrace yourself with your laughter in the eyes of conventional folk, if you go a walking with him in the street-at least I am. I never could keep the sober demeanor which dignified propriety demands. If once you have tasted the rare stimulant of Riley's companionship, you will find that every once and a while, just so often, you will feel that you cannot keep away from Indianapolis any longer, but must pack your grip and take the first express for the West. Not for the sake of the poetry, but just to see the best of Hoosiers once more.

I suppose the richness of Mr. Riley's vein of humor comes from the depth of his nature, from his great sympathy and serious tenderness, from his old-fashioned faith and loving attitude toward life. In such a character comedy could never become flippant or heartless, and never could degenerate into mere cleverness and paradox. His humor is sheer gladness and exuberance of spirit. Irony and satire have little part in his genial nature. If he goes through the world with a smile, it is because life tastes good to him, not because other people look crooked. He has plenty of righteous indignation for all petty meanness and wrong, and plenty of racy terms to denounce it in. But at the core of his heart is a mighty tolerance which looks upon this distracted universe and finds no fault at all. On one occasion the extreme ugliness of some man was being remarked upon, when Riley said that his features were not so bad once you got acclimated to them.

His mirth is the ecstatic glee of a youngster on holiday. He takes the hours as they come, and finds them so good that he cannot but give vent to his joy. He has nothing of the recent spirit of skeptical mockery, which likes to indulge its brilliancy in endless epigrams and facetious flippancies, and holds nothing too sacred for its acrid jest. He is too full of kindliness and veritable mirth to have any room for bitter and scornful wit. He has not imbibed the acid of modern thought, and feels no call to doubt the excellence of the world or the validity of old-fashioned notions.

He adheres, rather, to the ancient beliefs and pieties, and this simple credence, I doubt not, has much to do with the sweetness of his songs. His poetry has no trace of incredulity and unrest which form so large a part in the thinking and feeling of many men today.

Few men of letters, even with a more academic bent than Mr. Riley, are so full of their subject, so entirely devoted to it, or so well read. Many who have heard him in public know how inimitably he renders his own delightful poems. But he is full of poetry, and is always quoting it from all sources, with great solace and pleasure. The Elizabethans, the early Americans, the Victorians, to say nothing of the bards of his own beloved Indiana, he knows something of them all, something pertinent and full of cheer and beauty and consolation. He will quote lovingly from Burns or Shakespeare for the sake of the tender loveliness of the sentiment, or from Mr. Swinburne just as readily for sake of the incomparable magic of his lines.

The editor of a recently published Library of the World's Best Poetry, an extensive work in a number of large volumes, was most anxious to have Mr. Riley's assistance in editing the volume devoted to humorous verse. But his pleas and inducements were of no avail. Our poet could not be persuaded to undertake the task. No, oh, no, he could not do that. Why, there were four hundred poets right there at home in Indiana, and they were all his friends! How could he ever discriminate among them?

How indeed? The point was well taken, you must admit, if you know the kindly heart which conceived "The Little Cripple" and "Old John Henry."

And this man who is so careful of the feelings of others has a certain quality of dependence, like the helplessness of children, which must only enhance our caring for them. It is not guilelessness or lack of worldly wisdom, for he has as much shrewdness and hard sense as any farmer; it is rather the proverbial introspection and absorption of the dreamer. He is hopelessly at sea in a strange city, and in a strange hotel must carry his key in his pocket in order not to forget the number of his room. His own telephone number must be kept of a little scrap of paper in his pocketbook, for reference in case he wants to call up his home, and he will not be persuaded to visit our terrifying Manhattan for fear of sudden death by street car or automobile. But this last, of course, is only the decent prudence of a sane and unperverted mind. We are probably all a little mad together, we who live within the roar of the elevated and begin the feel lonesome and uneasy as soon as we cross the Harlem or venture further venture further West than Hoboken.

There is no lack of generous estimation of Riley's poetic power and genius in the little volume printed in his honor, but through all that is said runs the strain of affection and hearty friendship, making altogether a tribute not easily matched in literary annals. It is really an acknowledgment of the truth of Riley's own unformulated creed, the value of comradeship, the supremacy of sweet kindliness upon the earth. Few poets of the most brilliant could have called forth such unequivocal expression of personal esteem. He is a master of humor, indeed, and a lover of it, but only of humor when it is touched and softened by human sympathy and love. And I fancy he would not hesitate to subscribe to Richard Hovey's lines-

We held the league of heart to heart
The only purpose of the earth.


"Riley Just As He Is," New York Times Review of Books, Jan. 16, 1900 [back]