‘Reflections Irregular’ by John Rollin Ridge is a thirty-seven line poem that follows the rhyming pattern of ABABCDCD for the first lines of the poem and then at the twelfth line switches to AABBCCDD… etc. Finally, line twenty-three switches back to the original scheme for the rest of the piece. This changing rhyme scheme fits perfectly into the theme of the poem, and most especially the title.
The poem begins with the speaker describing a place he is once again visiting after many long, brutal, adult years have passed. This place, which is blessed by a rolling stream that makes the most beautiful music, used to be a dear friend of his. Now that he has aged, he sees everything differently. He can no longer feel what he did in the past. There is no joy to be had from wasting time in nature.
His youth has long since passed, but the stream has remained the same. It still makes the same low, happy sounds that it used to. But now his mind is filled with “business matters” and consumed by adult worries. He realizes as he visits this once much love place that the dreams that filled his head when he was young are now in “tatters.”
Analysis of Reflections Irregular
I cast a backward look—how changed
The scenes of other days!
I walk, a wearied man, estranged
From youth’s delightful ways.
There in the distance rolleth yet
That stream whose waves my
Boyish bosom oft has met,
When pleasure lit mine eye.
The poet begins this deeply reflective piece by having his speaker introduce, in the first line, the source of the memories to which the reader will be exposed. The speaker is looking “backward” in the past years of his life and the things that were most important to him. These things have had “changed,” and are now somewhat unrecognizable to the narrator. He states as much in the first two lines when he says, “how changed / The scenes of other days!” Now that he is there, seeing the places he used to know so well, nothing is quite the same as he remembers.
It becomes clear as ‘Reflections Irregular’ progresses that this is not because the places have changed but because he has. He is now a “wearied man” who has become separated or “estranged” from the person that he was when he was young. He sees in the distance a stream which he is very familiar with. It is rolling, and its “waves” are known to him. It brought him pleasure when he was young.
It rolleth yet, as clear, as bold,
As pure as it did then;
But I have grown in youth-time old,
And, mixing now with men,
My sobered eye must not attend
To that sweet stream, my early friend!
He continues describing the river, making sure to tell the reader that nothing about the actual river has changed. It is just “as clear, as bold” and “As pure” as it was when he was young. It only seems different to him because he has grown in the intervening years and is no longer able to regard the river as a friend like he used to.
His associates have changed since he was a boy. He is now surrounded by “men” and his eye has become “sobered” to the “sweet stream” that was one of his “earl[iest] friend[s].”
The music of its waters clear
Must now but seldom reach my ear,
But murmur still now carelessly
To every heedless passer-by.
How often o’er its rugged cliffs I’ve strayed,
And gaily listened, as its billows played
Such deep, low music at their base—
And then such brightening thoughts would trace
Upon the tablet of my mind!
The feelings and comfort, or “music” that the waters of the river once provided for the speaker, “Must” out of necessity in his adult life, “seldom reach” his ear. If he was to give in to the boyish fancies of youth then he could not operate in the modern world. That does not mean that the river has ceased making its music, it can still be heard “murmur[ing]” to every “passer-by” even those who do not heed it, or notice, it’s beauty.
The speaker continues to cast his mind back to the times of his youth when he happily climbed over the “cliffs” by the river to listen to the sounds of the water. He remembers the sounds of the river’s “music.” They were “deep” and “low,” and would send his mind to bright and happy places. It was as if the river could write directly onto his mind, making him think the same happy way the river sounded.
Lines 24- 29
Alas, those days have run their race,
Their joys I nowhere now can find.
I have no time to think
Of climbing Glory’s sunny mount
I have no time to drink
At Learning’s bubbling fount!
At this point in ‘Reflections Irregular’ the speaker returns to the present in which those days are long over, they have “run their race.” He no longer finds the same joys that he used to in the verdant hideaways of his youth. His mind is caught up in other things, (that will be explained in the last set of lines) and he does not have idle time to spend “climbing Glory’s sunny mount” nor time to spend on “Learning.”
Now corn and potatoes call me
From scenes were wont to enthrall me—
A weary wight,
Both day and night
My brain is full of business matters,
Reality has snatched the light,
From fancy’s head, that shone so bright,
And tore the dreams she wove, to tatters!
In the last set of lines of ‘Reflections Irregular’, the speaker describes what it is that his life is now occupied with. In the present he is called “corn and potatoes,” the basic, crucial aspects of life take all of his attention from the scenes that used to “enthrall [him].”
His days and nights are no longer joyous, they are “weary,” and his brain is full of “business matters.” The life he used to live has been taken over by brutal realities. It has
“snatched the light” out of his head and the dreams that once lived there are now in “tatters.”
About John Rollin Ridge
John Rollin Ridge was born in the Cherokee Nation, what is now the present city of Rome, Georgia in March of 1827. When Ridge was young his family and some of the other surrounding, prominent Cherokee leaders decided to sell their land and move out west. Ridge’s father was murdered in 1939 after a conflict between two different Cherokee factions rose to a boiling point over the signing of the treaty that gave up their land. That same night Ridge’s grandfather and cousin were also murdered.
His family was forced to flee, and they ended up in Arkansas. Ridge would go on to study at Great Barrington Academy in Massachusetts where he focused on classical languages and literature. He went on to study law but this career path was short-lived as he was forced to move after killing a member of a rival Cherokee faction in 1849.
He ended up in California where he began his career as a newspaper editor and journalist. He published under the pen name, Yellow Bird, and his book The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit was the first English book written and published by a Native American writer. Ridge spent the remainder of his life in California, working as the editor of The Daily National until his death in October of 1867. His book of poems entitled, Poems, was published by his wife the next year.