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 on December 6, 1886. 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. The family converted to the Catholic faith after little Rose (1912-1917) was crippled with poliomyelitis.
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. Following The Circus and Other Essays in 1916, 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. His poetry exhibits humility and a deep respect for God and nature.
Kilmer joined the New York Army National Guard and was transferred to France in October of 1917 during the Second Battle of the Marne in World War I, where he was shot and killed near Seringes in the line of duty on July 30, 1918. He was buried at Oise-Aisne, Fere-eu-Tardenois, and received the Croix de Guerre of France.
The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest by Robbinsville in western North Carolina near the Tennessee border was named after him. We include the poems Trees, The House with Nobody in It, Alarm Clocks, The Singing Girl, and his last poem, The Peacemaker, written on the battlefield in France six weeks before his death.
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
Whenever I walk to Suffern along the Erie track
I go by a poor old farmhouse with its shingles broken and black.
I suppose I've passed it a hundred times, but I always stop for a minute
And look at the house, the tragic house, the house with nobody in it.
I never have seen a haunted house, but I hear there are such things;
That they hold the talk of spirits, their mirth and sorrowings.
I know this house isn't haunted, and I wish it were, I do;
For it wouldn't be so lonely if it had a ghost or two.
This house on the road to Suffern needs a dozen panes of glass,
And somebody ought to weed the walk and take a scythe to the grass.
It needs new paint and shingles, and the vines should be trimmed and tied;
But what it needs the most of all is some people living inside.
If I had a lot of money and all my debts were paid
I'd put a gang of men to work with brush and saw and spade.
I'd buy that place and fix it up the way it used to be
And I'd find some people who wanted a home and give it to them free.
Now, a new house standing empty, with staring window and door,
Looks idle, perhaps, and foolish, like a hat on its block in the store.
But there's nothing mournful about it; it cannot be sad and lone
For the lack of something within it that it has never known.
But a house that has done what a house should do, a house that has sheltered life,
That has put its loving wooden arms around a man and his wife,
A house that has echoed a baby's laugh and held up his stumbling feet,
Is the saddest sight, when it's left alone, that ever your eyes could meet.
So whenever I go to Suffern along the Erie track
I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back,
Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof and the shutters fallen apart,
For I can't help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart.
When Dawn strides out to wake a dewy farm
Across green fields and yellow hills of hay
The little twittering birds laugh in his way
And poise triumphant on his shining arm.
He bears a sword of flame but not to harm
The wakened life that feels his quickening sway
And barnyard voices shrilling "It is day!"
Take by his grace a new and alien charm.
But in the city, like a wounded thing
That limps to cover from the angry chase,
He steals down streets where sickly arc-lights sing,
And wanly mock his young and shameful face;
And tiny gongs with cruel fervor ring
In many a high and dreary sleeping place.
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