James Whitcomb Riley was born on October 9, 1849, in Greenfield, Indiana, to local attorney Reuben A. Riley and his wife, Elizabeth (Marine) Riley, in a small cabin. His parents named him after James Whitcomb, the governor of Indiana. James Whitcomb Riley was their third child. He lived on the same property until he was 21. Riley was influenced by many of the visitors to his father's home. In particular, he was able to pick up the cadence and character of the dialect of central Indiana and the travelers along the old National Road, which came through in the many poems he went on to write. One particular visitor was Mary Alice Smith, who eventually stayed on to live with the Rileys. Mary Alice ("Allie") Smith influenced Riley's poem, Little Orphant Annie, which was originally to be called Little Orphant Allie but a typesetter's error changed the name of the poem.
Riley was never a great student. Before he dropped out of school at age 16, a former teacher encouraged him to appreciate nature. He attempted to study law in his father's law office, however he found that the law was not for him, whereupon he took several different jobs in rapid succession.
Riley wrote his first poem in 1870 when he was 21. He began writing for several newspapers, eventually working for the Indianapolis Journal in Indianapolis, Indiana writing miscellaneous articles, versifying whenever possible.
Riley's big break came with the private publishing of a thousand copies of The Old Swimmin' Hole and 'Leven More Poems in 1883 under the pseudonym of "Benjamin F. Johnson, of Boone". The book rapidly sold all of the first printing, causing Indianapolis book publisher Merrill, Meigs and Company to quickly contract with Riley to publish the second edition of The Old Swimmin' Hole and 'Leven More Poems. Riley continued to work with the publishing company which eventually became Bowen-Merrill and finally Bobbs-Merrill. The 1886 publishing The Boss Girl began to publish new Riley literature regularly. As a result he began to tour the United States giving lectures, starting in the mid-1880s.
In 1893 he was invited to live at the residence of Charles and Magdalena Holstein within the Indianapolis neighborhood of Lockerbie. He would call this his permanent residence for the last 23 years of his life, although he eventually purchased his childhood home, and allowed his brother, John Riley, to live there.
Source: PoemHunter: http://www.poemhunter.com/james-whitcomb-riley/biography/
New Castle, July 4, 1878
or a hundred years the pulse of time
Has throbbed for Liberty;
For a hundred years the grand old clime
Columbia has been free;
For a hundred years our country's love,
The Stars and Stripes, has waved above.
Away far out on the gulf of years--
Misty and faint and white
Through the fogs of wrong--a sail appears,
And the Mayflower heaves in sight,
And drifts again, with its little flock
Of a hundred souls, on Plymouth Rock.
Do you see them there--as long, long since--
Through the lens of History;
Do you see them there as their chieftain prints
In the snow his bended knee,
And lifts his voice through the wintry blast
In thanks for a peaceful home at last?
Though the skies are dark and the coast is bleak,
And the storm is wild and fierce,
Its frozen flake on the upturned cheek
Of the Pilgrim melts in tears,
And the dawn that springs from the darkness there
Is the morning light of an answered prayer.
The morning light of the day of Peace
That gladdens the aching eyes,
And gives to the soul that sweet release
That the present verifies,--
Nor a snow so deep, nor a wind so chill
To quench the flame of a freeman's will!
Days of toil when the bleeding hand
Of the pioneer grew numb,
When the untilled tracts of the barren land
Where the weary ones had come
Could offer nought from a fruitful soil
To stay the strength of the stranger's toil.
Days of pain, when the heart beat low,
And the empty hours went by
Pitiless, with the wail of woe
And the moan of Hunger's cry--
When the trembling hands upraised in prayer
Had only the strength to hold them there.
Days when the voice of hope had fled--
Days when the eyes grown weak
Were folded to, and the tears they shed
Were frost on a frozen cheek--
When the storm bent down from the skies and gave
A shroud of snow for the Pilgrim's grave.
Days at last when the smiling sun
Glanced down from a summer sky,
And a music rang where the rivers run,
And the waves went laughing by;
And the rose peeped over the mossy bank
While the wild deer stood in the stream and drank.
And the birds sang out so loud and good,
In a symphony so clear
And pure and sweet that the woodman stood
With his ax upraised to hear,
And to shape the words of the tongue unknown
Into a language all his own--
'Sing! every bird, to-day!
Sing for the sky so clear,
And the gracious breath of the atmosphere
Shall waft our cares away.
Sing! sing! for the sunshine free;
Sing through the land from sea to sea;
Lift each voice in the highest key
And sing for Liberty!'
'Sing for the arms that fling
Their fetters in the dust
And lift their hands in higher trust
Unto the one Great King;
Sing for the patriot heart and hand;
Sing for the country they have planned;
Sing that the world may understand
This is Freedom's land!'
'Sing in the tones of prayer,
Sing till the soaring soul
Shall float above the world's control
In freedom everywhere!
Sing for the good that is to be,
Sing for the eyes that are to see
The land where man at last is free,
O sing for liberty!'
A holy quiet reigned, save where the hand
Of labor sent a murmur through the land,
And happy voices in a harmony
Taught every lisping breeze a melody.
A nest of cabins, where the smoke upcurled
A breathing incense to the other world.
A land of languor from the sun of noon,
That fainted slowly to the pallid moon,
Till stars, thick-scattered in the garden-land
Of Heaven by the great Jehovah's hand,
Had blossomed into light to look upon
The dusky warrior with his arrow drawn,
As skulking from the covert of the night
With serpent cunning and a fiend's delight,
With murderous spirit, and a yell of hate
The voice of Hell might tremble to translate:
When the fond mother's tender lullaby
Went quavering in shrieks all suddenly,
And baby-lips were dabbled with the stain
Of crimson at the bosom of the slain,
And peaceful homes and fortunes ruined--lost
In smoldering embers of the holocaust.
Yet on and on, through years of gloom and strife,
Our country struggled into stronger life;
Till colonies, like footprints in the sand,
Marked Freedom's pathway winding through the land--
And not the footprints to be swept away
Before the storm we hatched in Boston Bay,--
But footprints where the path of war begun
That led to Bunker Hill and Lexington,--
For he who "dared to lead where others dared
To follow" found the promise there declared
Of Liberty, in blood of Freedom's host
Baptized to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
Oh, there were times when every patriot breast
Was riotous with sentiments expressed
In tones that swelled in volume till the sound
Of lusty war itself was well-nigh drowned.
Oh, those were times when happy eyes with tears
Brimmed o'er as all the misty doubts and fears
Were washed away, and Hope with gracious mien,
Reigned from her throne again a sovereign queen.
Until at last, upon a day like this
When flowers were blushing at the summer's kiss,
And when the sky was cloudless as the face
Of some sweet infant in its angel grace,--
There came a sound of music, thrown afloat
Upon the balmy air--a clanging note
Reiterated from the brazen throat
Of Independence Bell: A sound so sweet,
The clamoring throngs of people in the streets
Were stilled as at the solemn voice of prayer,
And heads were bowed, and lips were moving there
That made no sound--until the spell had passed,
And then, as when all sudden comes the blast
Of some tornado, came the cheer on cheer
Of every eager voice, while far and near
The echoing bells upon the atmosphere
Set glorious rumors floating, till the ear
Of every listening patriot tingled clear,
And thrilled with joy and jubilee to hear.
'Stir all your echoes up,
O Independence Bell,
And pour from your inverted cup
The song we love so well.
'Lift high your happy voice,
And swing your iron tongue
Till syllables of praise rejoice
That never yet were sung.
'Ring in the gleaming dawn
Of Freedom--Toll the knell
Of Tyranny, and then ring on,
O Independence Bell.--
'Ring on, and drown the moan,
Above the patriot slain,
Till sorrow's voice shall catch the tone
And join the glad refrain.
'Ring out the wounds of wrong
And rankle in the breast;
Your music like a slumber-song
Will lull revenge to rest.
'Ring out from Occident
To Orient, and peal
From continent to continent
The mighty joy you feel.
'Ring! Independence Bell!
Ring on till worlds to be
Shall listen to the tale you tell
Of love and Liberty!'
O Liberty--the dearest word
A bleeding country ever heard,--
We lay our hopes upon thy shrine
And offer up our lives for thine.
You gave us many happy years
Of peace and plenty ere the tears
A mourning country wept were dried
Above the graves of those who died
Upon thy threshold. And again
When newer wars were bred, and men
Went marching in the cannon's breath
And died for thee and loved the death,
While, high above them, gleaming bright,
The dear old flag remained in sight,
And lighted up their dying eyes
With smiles that brightened paradise.
O Liberty, it is thy power
To gladden us in every hour
Of gloom, and lead us by thy hand
As little children through a land
Of bud and blossom; while the days
Are filled with sunshine, and thy praise
Is warbled in the roundelays
Of joyous birds, and in the song
Of waters, murmuring along
The paths of peace, whose flowery fringe
Has roses finding deeper tinge
Of crimson, looking on themselves
Reflected--leaning from the shelves
Of cliff and crag and mossy mound
Of emerald splendor shadow-drowned.--
We hail thy presence, as you come
With bugle blast and rolling drum,
And booming guns and shouts of glee
Commingled in a symphony
That thrills the worlds that throng to see
The glory of thy pageantry.
0And with thy praise, we breathe a prayer
That God who leaves you in our care
May favor us from this day on
With thy dear presence--till the dawn
Of Heaven, breaking on thy face,
Lights up thy first abiding place.