Thursday, October 25, 2007

Little Orphant Annie by James Whitcomb Riley

Little Orphant Annie

Inscribed with all faith and affection
To all the little children: - The happy ones; and sad ones;
The sober and the silent ones; the boisterous and glad ones;
The good ones - Yes, the good ones, too; and all the lovely bad ones.

Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an-keep;
An' all us other childern, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an' has the mostest fun,
A-listenin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,
An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you

Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn't say his prayers, -
An' when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an' his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An' when they turn't the kivvers down, he wuzn't there at all!
An' they seeked him in the rafter-room, an' cubby-hole, an' press,
An seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an' ever'-wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an' roundabout: -
An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you

An' one time a little girl 'ud allus laugh an' grin,
An' make fun of ever' one, an' all her blood-an'-kin;
An' wunst, when they was "company," an' ole folks wuz there,
She mocked 'em an' shocked 'em, an' said she didn't care!
An' thist as she kicked her heels, an' turn't to run an' hide,
They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin' by her side,
An' they snatched her through the ceilin' 'for she knowed what she's about!
An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you

An' little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
An' the lamp-wick sputters, an' the wind goes woo-oo!
An' you hear the crickets quit, an' the moon is gray,
An' the lightnin'bugs in dew is all squenched away, -
You better mind yer parunts, an' yer teachurs fond an' dear,
An' cherish them 'at loves you, an' dry the orphant's tear,
An' he'p the pore an' needy ones 'at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns 'll git you
--James Whitcomb Riley

It always annoyed me that this poem has nothing whatsoever to do with a little red haired girl that sings about tomorrow (though it's generally accepted that this poem is where the comic strip got its name).

It also annoys me that the poem is so packed with "morality." If a little orphan girl ends up somewhere, working hard to earn her keep, she may very well tell the other children stories (Sara Crewe did). Yet I doubt that those stories would be about how you ought to be respectful to your elders and say your prayers or else Bad Things will happen. By that sort of reckoning, the orphan girl must have done something horrible to deserve her fate. No, her stories would be about how Bad Things happen to even the most virtuous children, but that if you play your cards right, you might prevail.

I think it's interesting that many of the sites that quote this poem only post the first stanza. It's got the "Little Orphant Annie" bit, which is one reason people remember it. It's also got the main idea of the poem -- kids sit around and listen to this girl tell ghost stories. Finally it's got the fun "An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you Ef You Don't Watch Out!" part which is the other reason people remember this poem. When you get past that fun scene that reminds you of campfire tales, the actual ghost stories are a real let down.

I heard an interesting quote yesterday. I've found various versions online, and can't tell which is the accurate quotation, since none of the quotes sites give sources other than the supposed author. Anyway, the gist of it is that G.K. Chesterton said: "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."

Take a look at poetry and literature. Lots of stuff has been written from both of these philosophies. But what has survived? Which stories do children ask to be told again and again? What books do parents fondly remember and buy for their children? It's certainly not the ones with heavy handed moralizing like we've got in this poem.

Children instinctively know, or quickly learn that those stories are false. Parents or nannies may tell them to scare the children into obedience, but when the child does something bad, and nothing bad happens, or when somebody else does something bad to the child, and they aren't instantly devoured by Gobble-uns, then the child feels betrayed and lied to, which indeed he was. If stuff happened that way, then we'd be living in Satan's world of forced obedience. Nobody would do bad things if they were instantly punished for them. I think it's interesting that one of the most common arguments against religion is "How could a loving, all-powerful God allow (bad thing x) to happen?" Satan has gotten people to blame God for allowing free will to exist.


  1. I liked the poem. I haven't seen it before. In regards to your last sentence:

    > I think it's interesting that one of the most common arguments against religion is "How could a loving, all-powerful God allow (bad thing x) to happen?" Satan has gotten people to blame God for allowing free will to exist.

    This leaves out bad things that aren't anyone's fault, or that punish someone disproportionately for their choices. I posted about this problem on my blog here:

    http://llamasandmys tegosaurus. blogspot. com/2007/ 08/problem- of-evil.html

  2. You're right--I left out all sorts of stuff on that subject because my post was too long as it was. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I must make a rebuttal, my parents both had this poem memorized, and
    it scared the willies out of us when they would tell it in the dark on
    long car rides. WE LOVED IT, and DID BEG THEM to tell it again and
    again. It was a bit different with added verses, but we loved it.
    Personally, I need the reminders found in Hymns, Primary songs, and
    yes poems and scriptures to remind me who to listen to and what I am
    actually supposed to be doing instead of hiding out here on the
    computer, and slowly killing myself with chocolate.

  4. Just goes to show how alike we are. I am sitting HERE reading and eating chocolate.

  5. Miriam,

    I'm curious about the parts that were "a bit different with added verses." Were they also about bad children who were eaten without warning? If so, what sorts of bad things did they do?

    I'm NOT saying that poems that teach true moral lessons are bad. I also love the primary songs, and just last week I posted that Forgiveness Flour poem that is very powerful. The ones I'm talking about are the ones that teach false things (like that you'll be instantly punished if you talk back to your elders or don't say your prayers one night). I also think that poems that are entirely pendantic--hitting you over the head with a "moral"--are generally of little worth.

    It's like the difference between the Chronicles of Narnia and books by Max Lucado. They're both Christian allegory, but I love the first, and can't stand the second. For more examples of the kind of poems I'm talking about, look at an old McGuffy reader or The Annotated Alice (which has the original poems that Louis Carroll was Parodying). For many years. kids had to memorize these poems and recite them on command. Now, they're almost all forgotten.

    But it's not like we've gotten rid of the moralizing bug in our society. Think of the tender moments at the end of a sitcom when everybody says "aaawww" because everybody's learned their lesson of the day. Or even worse, the types of plots they put on the cartoons they show on PBS Kids. Don't those bits just make you want to barf? I much prefer the Animaniacs' "Wheel of Morality Turn Turn Turn. Tell Us The Lesson That We Should Learn."

    Many parts of Little Orphant Annie are really well written and have a great spooky atmosphere. I just thought that the crimes of the kids who were eaten, and the heavy moralizing at the end tend to spoil the effect for me.

    Thanks for the comment though, and I really would like to hear what the extra bits were like.

  6. I've known and loved this poem since I was a small child. It does last; many people still read it to their children. Also, there is no mention of the children specifically being eaten, they are just snatched away. The spelling of "gobble-uns" is written version of Hoosier vernacular of the time, like many of the other spellings in the work. Riley was never considered a "great American poet", but was considered more of a "regional" writer. I don't think it would be uncommon to find "children's" poetry of the mid-19th century to have - what seems by today's standards - heavy-handed moralizing. I've always liked the fact that he brings up "[helping] the poor an' needy ones] at the end. Well, that's just my two cents.

  7. I live in Greenfield, IN, and am a hostess at the James Whitcomb Riley Home. I am also currently researching Mary Alice Smith Gray - - the REAL Little Orphant Annie.

    First of all, let me clarify something - - Riley was NOT just a regional phenomenon. In fact, he was a huge star - - even more popular than Mark Twain at the time. He was frequently invited to the White House to speak. He was a speaker and wrote an original piece at the death of Ulysses S. Grant. His works topped the best sellers list of the day - beating out everyone else who was publishing at the time. He made more money selling his poetry - than any other American poet previous to him with the exception of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Riley's idol). If there would have been a Poet Laureate of America - Riley would have been it.

    So please - do not discount his popularity in his time - - by how his considered today. He by far - - was so well known - that 35,000 people passed by his casket in one days time as it laid in state in Indiana's State Capitol building. And, let me remind you that he did NOT have the benefit of TV, Radio, or movies. His only means of promotion was through print and live performances.

    Having said that - - you have to understand why Riley was popular at this time. You also need to look at why "Orphant Annie" told the stories that she did.

    In many of Riley's poems you will find references to the supernatural. This was not uncommon in his poetry. This is what "sold well." Also, you should note that Riley did not always write in dialect. In fact, he preferred to write in correct English - - but this wasn't what the people of the time wanted.

    Mary Alice Smith was a real person who came to the Riley Home to live during the American Civil War. She told the fantastic stories as a way to keep the Riley children entertained as she did her work. It was a means to the end - and Riley who wrote Mary Alice's story twice (also in his prose poem, Where is Mary Alice Smith) - utilized the morality - to make his own point and observations on Mary Alice's plight.

    It is unfortunate that people today judge history - by today's standards. Please, please - - do your research and KNOW your history. You will find it fascinating - once you understand the real story behind the events.