James Whitcomb Riley's "The Old Swimmin'-Hole"
Introduction and Text of "The Old Swimmin'-Hole"
James Whitcomb Riley's poem, "The Old Swimmin'-Hole," belongs to the nostalgia genre of poetry that looks back fondly at one's childhood. It shares that theme with Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill" and John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy."
Riley's poem features five stanzas each displaying four riming couplets for a total 40 line poem, similar to Whittier’s 102 line nostalgia piece which also featured five stanzas employing couplets. Riley's poem uniquely features a Kentuckiana dialect, a melding of the dialects of Kentucky and Indiana.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
The Old Swimmin'- Hole
Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! whare the crick so still and deep
Looked like a baby-river that was laying half asleep,
And the gurgle of the worter round the drift jest below
Sounded like the laugh of something we onc't ust to know
Before we could remember anything but the eyes
Of the angels lookin' out as we left Paradise;
But the merry days of youth is beyond our controle,
And it's hard to part ferever with the old swimmin'-hole.
Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! In the happy days of yore,
When I ust to lean above it on the old sickamore,
Oh! it showed me a face in its warm sunny tide
That gazed back at me so gay and glorified,
It made me love myself, as I leaped to caress
My shadder smilin' up at me with sich tenderness.
But them days is past and gone, and old Time's tuck his toll
From the old man come back to the old swimmin'-hole.
Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! In the long, lazy days
When the humdrum of school made so many run-a-ways,
How plesant was the jurney down the old dusty lane,
Whare the tracks of our bare feet was all printed so plane
You could tell by the dent of the heel and the sole
They was lots o' fun on hands at the old swimmin'-hole.
But the lost joys is past! Let your tears in sorrow roll
Like the rain that ust to dapple up the old swimmin'-hole.
Thare the bullrushes growed, and the cattails so tall,
And the sunshine and shadder fell over it all;
And it mottled the worter with amber and gold
Tel the glad lilies rocked in the ripples that rolled;
And the snake-feeder's four gauzy wings fluttered by
Like the ghost of a daisy dropped out of the sky,
Or a wownded apple-blossom in the breeze's controle
As it cut acrost some orchard to'rds the old swimmin'-hole.
Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! When I last saw the place,
The scenes was all changed, like the change in my face;
The bridge of the railroad now crosses the spot
Whare the old divin'-log lays sunk and fergot.
And I stray down the banks whare the trees ust to be—
But never again will theyr shade shelter me!
And I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin'-hole.
Reading of "The Old Swimmin'- Hole"
The speaker in this James Whitcomb Riley widely anthologized favorite employs a strong Hoosiertucky (Kentuckiana) dialect as he nostalgically revisits a summertime childhood pastime.
First Stanza: Dramatizing Sounds
The speaker begins by asserting that the old swimming hole was actually a creek, but it looked like a "baby river," a description that pretty much reveals the truth about a "crick."
The speaker then dramatizes the "gurgle" of the creek as a heavenly sound "like the laugh of something we onc't ust to know / Before we could remember anything but the eyes." Then in the last couplet, the speaker makes it clear that he is now a grown man, looking back at his pleasant experiences swimming in the creek: "But the merry days of youth is beyond our controle, / And it's hard to part ferever with the old swimmin'-hole."
Second Stanza: The Drama of Climbing
Next, the speaker creates a little drama of his experience; he used to climb up in a sycamore tree and out onto a branch that jutted out over the stream. He claims he could see his own face in the water. Then again, the speaker laments the passing of those days, for now, he is an "old man come back to the old swimmin'-hole."
Third Stanza: Skipping School
In the third stanza, the speaker says that kids would skip school to go swimming. He describes the boys as barefooted and running to the place where "They was lots o' fun." And yet again, the speaker laments that the joys of those days are lost: "But the lost joys is past! Let your tears in sorrow roll / Like the rain that ust to dapple up the old swimmin'-hole."
The "old dusty lane" leading to the creek was so pleasant to the bare feet of the boys, and the speaker unashamedly tells them to go ahead and shed a few tears at the loss of those days. The speaker does so with a colorful exaggeration: "Let your tears in sorrow roll / Like the rain that ust to dapple up the old swimmin'-hole."
Fourth Stanza: The Beauty of the Setting
The fourth stanza offers a lovely description of the area around the creek. The bullrushes and cattails grow thick and tall, and with the sunshine and shadows they gleam along the water with "amber and gold." There are lilies and butterflies to decorate the scene further. One butterfly's wings are like "the ghost of a daisy dropped out of the sky."
Fifth Stanza: Sorrow in Nostalgia
The last stanza provides the sorrow that nostalgia sometimes evokes. The speaker describes the changes that the beloved swimming hole had undergone the last time he visited it: A railroad bridge "now crosses the spot."
The old diving logs were sunken and forlorn-looking from lack of use. The speaker then portrays his melancholy, creating a wonderfully appropriate metaphor: "I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul, / And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin'-hole." The speaker hopes to shed his body like an old tattered garment so that his soul can dive into eternity the way his body used to dive into "the old swimmin'-hole."
© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes