“I think that I shall never see…”: Joyce Kilmer as War Poet

Just over 6000 American soldiers are buried outside the French village of Fère-en-Tardenois, at Oise-Aisne Cemetery. The most famous was killed by a German sniper ninety-five years ago today: a sergeant in the New York National Guard named Joyce Kilmer.

Ranks of crosses at the Oise-Aisne American Military Cemetery
Oise-Aisne American Military Cemetery

So we were informed by the cemetery superintendent when our group visited Oise-Aisne last January during our travel course on the history of World War I. And when he asked if anyone knew what Joyce Kilmer was famous for, I returned that “Why don’t you tell me why you think he’s famous” look that professors produce when they’re not sure of an answer and won’t risk exposing their ignorance. Sure enough, I was right — and am still glad I didn’t say anything, since I wasn’t all that impressed by what I knew of Kilmer…

As many of you do know, Kilmer was a poet whose most famous poem (published the year before WWI started) starts thusly:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

Yes, I did know that about him. (And that this Joyce was a him.) And I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have said so without keeping a snobbishly dismissive note out of my voice. I don’t know anything about poetry, but even I can appreciate that “Trees” is a horribly trite poem — the inspiration for the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest held annually at his alma mater, Columbia University.

Kilmer, Trees and Other Poems (1914)But that morning in Picardy I learned enough else about Joyce Kilmer to make him significantly more interesting, and troubling — if only for a professor who teaches about the history of World War I at a Christian college.

First, Kilmer was born Episcopalian but converted to Roman Catholicism in 1913, the year his daughter Rose was born with polio and “Trees” was first published. “Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree,” it concludes, and the book in which “Trees” appeared the following year includes even more explicitly Catholic couplets.

  • “Bright stars, yellow stars, flashing through the air, / Are you errant strands of Lady Mary’s hair?” (“Stars,” dedicated to his priest)
  • “What is the key to Everlasting Life? / A blood-stained Cross.” (“Pennies”)
  • “So God who lifts the poor and humbles kings / Sent loveliness itself to dwell with me.” (“Wealth”)

Not to mention the poem about the Rosary, those about Saints Laurence and Alexis, or the one that narrates Nativity from the point of view of the innkeeper…

None of it’s much better than “Trees,” but someone who would snarl one poem “To Certain Poets” whose “tiny voices mock God’s wrath, / You snails that crawl along His path!” and dedicate another “To A Young Poet Who Killed Himself” in which the worms who share the titular suicide’s “muddy haven” proclaim, “Not all your puny anger mars / God’s irresistible forgiving” likely cared little about being fashionably modern.

Or, as Kilmer reminded himself, “They shall not live who have not tasted death. / They only sing who are struck dumb by God” (from “Poets”).

Joyce Kilmer in U.S. Army uniform
Sgt. Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) – Wikimedia

Kilmer enlisted in the military not long after the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, joined the famous “Fighting 69th” regiment, and arrived in France in November of that year. On July 30, 1918, during an Allied counter-offensive following the failure of the last significant German offensive of the war, Kilmer was shot through the head while scouting for a German machine gun.

The memoir Kilmer contracted to write before leaving the States was completed in 1919 by the regiment’s well-known chaplain, Fr. Francis P. Duffy (as Father Duffy’s Story). Then a posthumous collection of Kilmer’s writings included five “Poems from France.”

His “Prayer of a Soldier in France” would have fit comfortably with the earlier work that made him, in the view of one admirer, “in his time and place the laureate of the Catholic Church.” It begins:

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).

But what’s most telling about Kilmer’s war poetry is how out of step it is — in style, and in attitude towards the war — with the works of the more famous British war poets, like Wilfred Owen (who died just over three months after Kilmer, one week before the Armistice) and Siegfried Sassoon.

A prewar Kilmer had included in the Trees collection “Memorial Day,” an unabashedly patriotic celebration of the “honored dead” who “plunged for Freedom and the Right” and now “march, the legions of the Lord; / He is their Captain unafraid, / The Prince of Peace . . . Who brought a sword.” (“He hated many things,” wrote Kilmer’s friend and biographer, Robert Holliday, “but I believe that of all things he hated most a pacifist—a pacifist in anything. He was a fighter. He fought for his home, stone by stone; he fought for his renown. His conception of the church was the Church Militant.”) Kilmer prefaced that poem with the words “Dulce et decorum est”…

Concluding “pro patria mori,” the epigraph comes from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.” Of course, those same words became the title of perhaps Owen’s greatest poem — about the victim of a gas attack who haunts the “helpless sight” of the poet’s dream, “…guttering, choking, drowning.”

Owen might have been speaking to the prewar Kilmer with his closing lines, advising him that if he’d seen that terrible image (“white eyes writhing in his face, / His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin…”), then

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Or, he might have said it to the Kilmer who served in war, too. Since even while in France, just six weeks before his death, the American could write lines such as these, from “The Peacemaker“:

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.

Or this quatrain penned earlier in 1918, from “Rouge Bouquet“:

There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than this place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and nobly died.

Of course, at some point in the war even Siegfried Sassoon had written about “France” as a place where men could consider themselves “fortunate, who fight / For gleaming landscapes swept and shafted / And crowned by cloud pavilions white….” Only later did those soldiers become, in Sassoon’s telling, “citizens of death’s gray land.”

Memorial chapel at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery
Cross-shaped sword in the memorial chapel of the Oise-Aisne Cemetery

Perhaps Kilmer would have undergone a similar transformation had he survived and encountered Modernism while the war dragged on (as some Allied planners expected) into 1919 or 1920. But likely not, given the way he described the purpose of poetry and the value of war in one of his final letters:

All that poetry can be expected to do is to give pleasure of a noble sort to its readers, leading them to the contemplation of that beauty which neither words nor sculptures nor pigments can do more than faintly reflect, and to express the mental and spiritual tendencies of the people of the lands and times in which it is written. I have very little chance to read contemporary poetry out here, but I hope it is reflecting the virtues which are blossoming on the blood-soaked soil of this land—courage, and self-abnegation, and love, and faith—this last not faith in some abstract goodness, but faith in God and His Son and the Holy Ghost, and in the Church which God Himself founded and still rules. France has turned to her ancient Faith with more passionate devotion than she has shown for centuries. I believe that America is learning the same lesson from the war, and is cleansing herself of cynicism and pessimism and materialism and the lust for novelty which has hampered our national development. I hope that our poets already see this tendency and rejoice in it—if they do not they are unworthy of their craft. (quoted by Thomas Quinn Beesley in a 1919 review of Kilmer’s “Poems from France” for The Catholic Educational Review)

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