Beau November 12th, 2008
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.
Joyce Kilmer – 1913
Many of us know of this beautiful poem. When I think of trees, nothing I’ve read evokes such feeling or understanding for the simple beauty that a tree represents. My mother had a framed copy of this poem hanging up for years that I’ve always loved, and it was her mothers’ too. I remember wondering who Joyce Kilmer was, but never really took the time to find out about her. Today, reading an old book of poems from 1929, I found that Joyce Kilmer was a soldier.
Sergeant Alfred Joyce Kilmer served in the 165th Infantry (69th New York), with the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. He was born on December 6th, 1886, and killed in action near Ourcy, July 30th, 1918 at the age of 31. Sargeant Kilmer is buried in France. As I looked for a little more about him, I found that Joyce Kilmer was a very popular author and poet. He had planned to continue a career in writing and journalism. I’m sure many people knew of Joyce Kilmer before I did, and it shows how the passage of time so often leaves the stories of our lives behind. For Joyce Kilmer, it is the poem “Trees” that people most remember.
Lest anyone think he was too firmly ensconced in sentimentality for nature or trees however, I laughed when I read that,
“… a 1915 interview with Kilmer pointed out that while Kilmer might be widely known for his affection for trees, his affection was certainly not sentimental – the most distinguished feature of Kilmer’s property was a colossal woodpile outside his home. The house stood in the middle of a forest and what lawn it possessed was obtained only after Kilmer had spent months of weekend toil in chopping down trees, pulling up stumps, and splitting logs. Kilmer’s neighbors had difficulty in believing that a man who could do that could also be a poet.”
I see no difficulty in believing that at all, and would like to think his love and connection with trees might have been joined by a practical approach to life. When I plant a tree, or cut and stack wood for our winter’s fire, I’ll think of him and his poem. However late, I was glad that I learned more about Joyce Kilmer personally while reading his poems from an old book, in front of a fire on an Autumn day, the day after Veteran’s day.
It was also a surprise, bittersweet and haunting, to know that a poem I’ve always enjoyed and that has brought such beauty and inspiration to so many, was written by someone who endured such hardship, and whose life was cut short so far from home. Thank you Sergeant Kilmer, for your words and your service.