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The Cracker Barrel: 'The Passing of the Outhouse'

James Whitcomb Riley, who was born in 1849 and died in 1916, was the most famous American poet of his day and regularly gave public readings, often sharing the stage with other celebrities like Mark Twain. He also wrote several books for children. His poem "The Passing of the Outhouse" was published after his death.

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Now that summer's over, it seems appropriate to run the following poem by James Whitcomb Riley, titled "The Passing of the Outhouse."

Riley, who was born in 1849 and died in 1916, was the most famous American poet of his day and regularly gave public readings, often sharing the stage with other celebrities like Mark Twain. He also wrote several books for children.

Over his lifetime, Riley published approximately 1,000 poems and came to be known as the National Poet. His works were significantly influenced by Robert Burns, to whom he was compared by many critics.

Given the somewhat prudish customs of the times, Riley's poem about the outhouse was not published until after his death.

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"The Passing of the Outhouse"

"We had our posey garden that the women loved so well.

I loved it too but better still I loved the stronger smell

That filled the evening breezes so full of homely cheer

And told the night o’ertaken tramp that human life was near.


On lazy August afternoons it made a little bower

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Delightful, where my grandsire sat and whiled away an hour.

For there the summer morning its very cares entwined,

And berry bushes reddened in the teeming soil behind.


All day fat spiders spun their webs to catch the buzzing flies

That flitted to and from the house where Ma was baking pies.

And once a swarm of hornets bold had built a palace there,

And stung my unsuspecting aunt - I must not tell you where.

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Then father took a flaming pole - that was a happy day -

He nearly burned the building up, but the hornets left to stay.

When summer bloom began to fade and winter to carouse,

We banked the little building with a heap of hemlock boughs.


But when the crust was on the snow and the sullen skies were gray,

In sooth the building was no place where one could wish to stay.

We did our duties promptly; there one purpose swayed the mind.

We tarried not nor lingered long on what we left behind.


The torture of that icy seat would make a Spartan sob,

For needs must scrape the gooseflesh with a lacerating cob

That from a frost-encrusted nail was suspended by a string -

My father was a frugal man and wasted not a thing.


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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.


When Grandpa had to 'go out back' and make his morning call,

We'd bundled up the dear old man with a muffler and a shawl.

I knew the hole on which he sat 'twas padded all around,

And once I dared to sit there; 'twas all too wide, I found.


My loins were all too little and I jack-knifed there to stay;

They had to come and get me out or I'd have passed away.

Then Father said ambition was a thing small boys should shun,

And I must use the children's hole till childhood days were done.


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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.


But still I marvel at the craft that cut those holes so true;

The baby hole and the slender hole that fitted Sister Sue.

That dear old country landmark! I've tramped around a bit

And in the lap of luxury my lot has been to sit,


But ere I die I'll eat the fruit of trees I robbed of yore,

Then seek the shanty where my name is carved upon the door.

I ween the old familiar smell will soothe my jaded soul;

I'm now a man, but none the less I'll try the children's hole."

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.

Related Topics: FAMILYMEMBERS-ONLYTHE CRACKER BARRELPOEM
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