Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) was a young American poet who suffered a tragic death in World War I at the age of 31. His poem Trees is probably the most quoted poem in American history.
Joyce Kilmer was born in Brunswick, New Jersey. Following graduation from Columbia University in 1908, he married Aline Murray on June 9, 1908. They had five children - Kenton, Michael, Deborah, Rose, and Christopher. His first collection of poetry, Summer of Love, was published in 1911, and was well received. However, it was the publication of Trees that established his reputation as a major American poet. Trees was first published in August 1913 in Poetry Magazine, and then became the title poem in his second collection in 1914, Trees and Other Poems. He became quite prolific and produced three publications in 1917: Literature in the Making, Main Street and Other Poems, and Dreams and Images: An Anthology of Catholic Poets. A Catholic convert in 1913, his poetry exhibits humility and a deep respect for God and nature.
Kilmer joined the National Guard and was transferred to France in October of 1917, where he was shot and killed in the line of duty on July 30, 1918. He was buried there at Oise-Aisne, Fere-eu-Tardenois, and received the Croix de Guerre of France. The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina was named after him.
We include the poem Trees, The Singing Girl, and his last poem, written on the battlefield in France during World War I six weeks before his death, The Peacemaker.
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.
written February 2, 1913
There was a little maiden
In blue and silver drest,
She sang to God in Heaven
And God within her breast.
It flooded me with pleasure,
It pierced me like a sword,
When this young maiden sang: "My soul
Doth magnify the Lord."
The stars sing all together
And hear the angels sing,
But they said they had never heard
So beautiful a thing.
Saint Mary and Saint Joseph,
And Saint Elizabeth,
Pray for us poets now
And at the hour of 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.
June 14, 1918