Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Recently I came across a poem by a Catholic  American poet who I grew up reading, but one hears little about today.  I wonder if the average school child even reads poetry today?  I know our children do on Shaw. They have even had some local well known poets come to give them  classes on how to write poetry.  Kilmer was the most known of the war poets who was an American- more on the War poets in next Blog.

JOYCE KILMER lived in the age of the great English writers  J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc. 

Joyce Kilmer was a soldier, essayist, prolific poet, and literary critic,  a convert to Catholicism. While he is largely remembered for his poem “Trees”, he was also known for poetry that celebrated the common beauty of the natural world as well as his religious faith.

Joyce Kilmer was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1886.
After graduating from Rutgers College and Columbia University, he served as the literary editor for the religious newspaper “The Churchman”, and later, was on staff at the New York Times. Kilmer enlisted in the New York National Guard in 1917 when the United States entered World War I. As a family man, he was not required to join the services. Instead, he requested a transfer to the infantry and was deployed to Europe. At the time of deployment, he was widely regarded as the leading Catholic American poet of his generation.

Aline Kilmer

He was married to Aline Murray* , also an accomplished poet and author, with whom he had five children. Their daughter Rose was stricken with an infantile paralysis shortly after her birth, a crisis which led Joyce and Aline to convert to Roman CatholicismKilmer wrote that he "believed in the Catholic position, the Catholic view of ethics and aesthetics, for a long time," and he "wanted something not intellectual, some conviction not mental – in fact I wanted Faith." He would stop "every morning for months" on his way "to the office and prayed for faith," claiming that when "faith did come, it came, I think, by way of my little paralyzed daughter. Her lifeless hands led me; I think her tiny feet know beautiful paths. You understand this and it gives me a selfish pleasure to write it down."

Once in Europe, Kilmer quickly rose to the rank of Sergeant and served mostly as an intelligence officer, collecting data and information from the enemy’s front line. 

He sought more hazardous duty and was transferred to the military intelligence section of his regiment, in April 1918. In a letter to his wife, Aline, he remarked: "Now I'm doing work I love – and work you may be proud of. None of the drudgery of soldiering, but a double share of glory and thrills."

Kilmer's fellow soldiers had accorded him much respect for his battlefield demeanor. "He was worshiped by the men about him. I have heard them speak with awe of his coolness and his nerve in scouting patrols in no man's land. This coolness and his habit of choosing, with typical enthusiasm, the most dangerous and difficult missions, led to his death."  On July 30, 1918, he joined in the battle of Ourcq and was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

He  was awarded by the French the prestigious Croix de Guerre (War Cross) for his bravery. 

As a Soldier
Kilmer's early works were inspired by, and were imitative of, the poetry of Algernon Charles SwinburneGerard Manley HopkinsErnest DowsonAubrey Beardsley, and William Butler Yeats (and the Celtic Revival). It was later through the influence of works by Coventry PatmoreFrancis Thompson, and those of Alice Meynell, that Kilmer seems to have become interested in Catholicism. He wrote of his influences:

I have come to regard them with intense admiration. Patmore seems to me to be a greater poet than Francis Thompson. He has not the rich vocabulary, the decorative erudition, the Shelleyan enthusiasm, which distinguish the Sister Songs and the Hound of Heaven, but he has a classical simplicity, a restraint and sincerity which make his poems satisfying.”

Critics compared Kilmer to British Catholic writers Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton - suggesting that his reputation might have risen to the level where he would have been considered their American counterpart if not for his untimely death at the age of 31.

The entire body of Kilmer's work was produced between 1909 and 1918 when Romanticism and sentimental lyric poetry fell out of favor and Modernism took root. In the years after Kilmer's death, poetry went in drastically different directions, as is seen especially in the work of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.  Kilmer's verse is conservative and traditional, and does not break the formal rules of poetics. He can be considered as one of the last poets of the Romantic era. His style has been criticized for not breaking free of traditional modes of rhyme, meter, and theme, and for being too sentimental to be taken seriously, yet he is still remembered by some.

In 1938, the federal government purchased 3,800 acres of old growth forest in North Carolina to stop extensive logging. The tract of forest was dedicated to the memory and service of Joyce Kilmer.

Prayer Of A Soldier In France

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. Amen

Aline's poetry is described as subtle, delicate, and somewhat subdued with a tone of  ironic disillusionment -certainly far from her husband's direct, vigorous, and gay poems.

From her poem, "Sanctuary", these lines are inscribed on her gravestone:
There all bright passing beauty is held forever
Free from the sense of tears, to be loved without regret
There we shall find at their source music and love and laughter,
Colour and subtle fragrance and soft incredible textures:
Be sure we shall find what our weary hearts desire.

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