I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
That poem written by Alfred Joyce Kilmer, better known as Joyce Kilmer, in 1914 is, unfortunately, all most American Catholics remember today about that remarkable man. That is regrettable, because he was a devout Catholic and an American patriot and he deserves better than relative historical oblivion.
Born in 1886 into an Episcopalian family in New Brunswick , New Jersey, Kilmer studied at the Rutgers College Grammar School, Rutgers College and graduated from Colombia in 1908. Shortly after graduation he married Aline Murray, the love of his life, a poet in her own right. Together they had a happy home and five children to fill it.
Initially teaching Latin in Morristown, New Jersey, Kilmer quickly embarked on a literary life, submitting essays and poems to the various magazines of the day. From 1909 to 1912 he worked on the Funk and Wagnalls’ Dictionary. In 1912 he became literary editor of The Churchman, a publication of the Episcopalian Church. In 1913 he made the leap to being an ink-stained wretch and became a features writer for the New York Times.
In 1912 the Kilmers welcomed into this world their third child and second daughter, Rosamond (called Rose) Kilburn Kilmer. Rose was afflicted with infantile paralysis. A sick child often causes parents to look seriously at their faith, and the Kilmers were no different. Their conversion to Catholicism was no doubt helped along by Father James J. Daly, SJ, who became a good friend to the Kilmers after Rose’s birth, and who had been from 1898-1908 chaplain of the Fighting 69th, a New York National Guard regiment that was to play such a dominating role in Kilmer’s future. Here is some of Kilmer’s correspondence with Father Daly that continued until Kilmer’s death. In 1914, Kilmer wrote to Father Daly about his conversion:
With the publication of the Tree poem to considerable critical acclaim in 1914, Kilmer entered into a ceaseless round of lecturing and writing. He served as poetry editor of the magazine Current Literature and contributing editor of Warner’s Library of the World’s Best Literature. A partial list of his publications is here. Kilmer combined his love of the Faith and his love of poetry in his Anthology of Catholic Poetry.
Lacking any skill in poetry, I will merely state that I find much of Kilmer’s work to be both incisive and yet mysterious. A fair sample is this:
The Robe of Christ
(For Cecil Chesterton)
At the foot of the Cross on Calvary
Three soldiers sat and diced,
And one of them was the Devil
And he won the Robe of Christ.
When the Devil comes in his proper form
To the chamber where I dwell,
I know him and make the Sign of the Cross
Which drives him back to Hell.
And when he comes like a friendly man
And puts his hand in mine,
The fervour in his voice is not
From love or joy or wine.
And when he comes like a woman,
With lovely, smiling eyes,
Black dreams float over his golden head
Like a swarm of carrion flies.
Now many a million tortured souls
In his red halls there be:
Why does he spend his subtle craft
In hunting after me?
Kings, queens and crested warriors
Whose memory rings through time,
These are his prey, and what to him
Is this poor man of rhyme,
That he, with such laborious skill,
Should change from role to role,
Should daily act so many a part
To get my little soul?
Oh, he can be the forest,
And he can be the sun,
Or a buttercup, or an hour of rest
When the weary day is done.
I saw him through a thousand veils,
And has not this sufficed?
Now, must I look on the Devil robed
In the radiant Robe of Christ?
He comes, and his face is sad and mild,
With thorns his head is crowned;
There are great bleeding wounds in his feet,
And in each hand a wound.
How can I tell, who am a fool,
If this be Christ or no?
Those bleeding hands outstretched to me!
Those eyes that love me so!
I see the Robe — I look — I hope –
I fear — but there is one
Who will direct my troubled mind;
Christ’s Mother knows her Son.
O Mother of Good Counsel, lend
Intelligence to me!
Encompass me with wisdom,
Thou Tower of Ivory!
“This is the Man of Lies,” she says,
“Disguised with fearful art:
He has the wounded hands and feet,
But not the wounded heart.”
Beside the Cross on Calvary
She watched them as they diced.
She saw the Devil join the game
And win the Robe of Christ.
A few days after the US entered World War I in April of 1917, Kilmer enlisted in the Seventh regiment of the New York National Guard before seeking , and receiving, with the help of Father Francis P. Duffy, regimental chaplain of the Fighting 69th, a transfer to the Fighting 69th. The poet and the priest rapidly became the best of friends. Kilmer was not unmindful of the sacrifice that his enlistment entailed for his family. “I feel the pain of my sacrifice is hard on both of us (me and Aline), but I realize also that God wills me to do my duty in this manner; and, therefore, I have every reason to believe that He will take better care of my wife and children than I should ever hope to do. I have considered this step I am taking from every side and I feel there is no doubt that I have an obligation to join the colors. I would be ashamed later on to look at the children if I don’t volunteer. However other married men feel about going, I consider my enlisting as a duty I owe to God and country.”
In joining the 69th Kilmer was joining a regiment that had a proud record of combat in the Civil War, during which, according to legend, it had acquired the title “Fighting” from no less an authority on such matters than Robert E. Lee. He quickly rose from private to sergeant. Offered a commission as an officer if he would transfer out of the 69th, now officially known as the 165th Infantry regiment, Kilmer declined, stating that he would rather be a sergeant with the 69th than an officer in another regiment. Before sailing for France with the 69th, Kilmer knew great tragedy and joy: his beloved daughter Rose died in September 1917 and his son Christopher was born 12 days later. The regiment sailed on October 31.
While in the Army Kilmer continued to write poetry and essays. In this poem he found the sufferings he endured as nothing compared to what Christ had endured for him.
Prayer of a Soldier in France (1918)
My shoulders ache beneath my pack
(Lie easier, Cross, upon His back).
I march with feet that burn and smart
(Tread, Holy Feet, upon my heart).
Men shout at me who may not speak
(They scourged Thy back and smote Thy cheek).
I may not lift a hand to clear
My eyes of salty drops that sear.
(Then shall my fickle soul forget
Thy Agony of Bloody Sweat?)
My rifle hand is stiff and numb
(From Thy pierced palm red rivers come).
Lord, Thou didst suffer more for me
Than all the hosts of land and sea.
So let me render back again
This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.
At first Kilmer served as a statistician with the 69th, a “bullet-proof” job as he put it, away from the fighting. This did not suit him, and in April he was transferred to the regiment’s intelligence section. He soon earned a reputation for complete fearlessness in the scouting missions he participated in of the front lines of the enemy units.
The Fighting 69th as part of the Rainbow Division, the name given to the division because it consisted of National Guard units drawn from across America like a rainbow, took part in the Second Battle of the Marne in July and August 1918, the turning point of World War I. Since March 1918 the Germans had been on the offensive and now were within striking distance of Paris. Reinforced by a quarter of a million American doughboys, the French were ready to launch a counter-offensive and drive the Germans back. The Rainbow Dvision was in constant combat, and on the morning of July 30th, Sergeant Joyce Kilmer, who was scouting ahead of the division to locate German machine gun positions near the Ourcq river, was killed by a German sniper. An account of his death is here. Kilmer was awarded post-humously the Croix de Guerre by the French Republic. He was 31 years old.
Joyce Kilmer had begun a book on the 69th during the war. Father Duffy took up the task and the book was published after the war as Father Duffy’s Story With An Historical Appendix by Joyce Kilmer. In the forward to the book, Father Duffy wrote: “ Joyce Kilmer was to have written this book. I took over the task after his death in battle. The manuscript he left had been hurriedly written, at intervals in a busy soldier existence, which interested him far more than literary work. I have taken the liberty of adding his work, incomplete though it is, to my own; because I feel that Kilmer would be glad at having his name associated withthe story of the Regiment which had his absolute devotion; and because I cannot resist the temptation of associating with my own the name of one of the noblest specimens of humanity that has existed in our times.”
His wife of course was devastated by his death. She went on with her life with courage and determination to raise their children, pursue her career as a writer, and to preserve the memory and work of her husband. In 1919 she published an anthology of her poems, Candles That Burn, dedicated “To Joyce”, which contained this poem:
When I was young I was so sad!
I was so sad! I did not know
Why any living thing was glad
When one must some day sorrow so.
But now that grief has come to me
My heart is like a bird set free.
I always knew that it would come;
I always felt it waiting there:
Its shadow kept my glad voice dumb
And crushed my gay soul with despair.
But now that I have lived with grief
I feel an exquisite relief.
Athletes who know their proven strength,
Ships that have shamed the hurricane:
These are my brothers, and at length
I shall come back to joy again.
However hard my life may be
I know it shall not conquer me.
Many honors came to Kilmer after his death. Numerous schools and parks were named in his honor. The Fighting 69th remembers him. Perhaps the honor he would most have cherished is the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina named in his honor on July 10, 1936.
A poet always should have the last word. Here is a poem that Kilmer wrote six weeks before his death.
Upon his will he binds a radiant chain,
For Freedom’s sake he is no longer free.
It is his task, the slave of Liberty,
With his own blood to wipe away a stain.
That pain may cease, he yields his flesh to pain.
To banish war, he must a warrior be.
He dwells in Night, eternal Dawn to see,
And gladly dies, abundant life to gain.
What matters Death, if Freedom be not dead?
No flags are fair, if Freedom’s flag be furled.
Who fights for Freedom, goes with joyful tread
To meet the fires of Hell against him hurled,
And has for captain Him whose thorn-wreathed head
Smiles from the Cross upon a conquered world.