2018 marks the centennial of the death of Joyce Kilmer in northern France, 1918 (b. 1886, New Brunswick, NJ). In his day, some deemed him “America’s leading Catholic poet and lecturer of his generation, often compared to British contemporaries G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.” Today, I fear that most Americans have heard his name only because of the eponymous rest area between exits 8a and 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike, part of my home state’s way of honoring its native sons by naming service plazas after them.
For those who have not forgotten him, Kilmer is remembered as largely disparaged by the literary guild. One reason is that his poetic voice was out of step with the times. Kilmer wrote in classic style—including rhyme—as modernism was coming to dominate poetry. That bias is pretty apparent in the classroom today: many courses in American poetry “skate through the Louvre” (to borrow a phrase employed in another context by a friend, Fr. Richard Dillon), rapidly ignoring everything until the appearance of Walt Whitman, then quickly leaping to Ezra Pound and the twentieth century.
Kilmer’s vocabulary would prove daunting probably even to many self-styled “educated” readers, though it might enable the more ambitious to top off the SAT at 1600. Consider this excerpt from “Day after Christmas,” where he comments on how modernity replaced Good King Wenceslaus’ personal charity with affixing “Christmas seals” to once-commonplace Christmas cards:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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…instead of having our page bring flesh and wine to the poor man on Saint Stephen’s Day, we give a dollar to the youth from the still vexed Bermuthes who chaperons the elevator in our apartment house, and for weeks before Christmas we affix to the flaps of the envelopes containing our letters little stamps bearing libelous caricatures of Saint Nicholas of Bari. Theoretically this last process provides a modicum of Christmas cheer for certain carefully selected and organized poor people.
Finally, Kilmer’s subjects—nature, the world around him, his Catholic faith—also tend not to endear him to an academy in search of “transgressive” “avant-garde” themes. Indeed, moderns have even named a “bad poetry” award after Kilmer. As we mark a century after the death of this valiant young poet by the bullet of a sniper in World War I, let me contribute to some revival of interest in his work by reflecting on his poem, “Trees.”
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.
If any of Kilmer’s works are still anthologized, “Trees” is the most likely candidate. It is probably the most known and most attacked as “sentimental,” “maudlin,” and “doggerel.” Even Thomas Merton used the poem as a parody for his own “Chee$e,” a critique of the Gethsemane monks’ labora that helped pay for their ora. Some critics attack “Trees” because of its religious content, which they contend diverts attention from the poem itself to the religious sentiments it elicits. A poetry devoid of further religious allusions would suit such critics well.
“Trees” is perhaps not great poetry, though it is hard to believe it survived since 1913 purely on its alleged badness. Kilmer was proud of his artistry and considered poetry and literature noble vocations. But, pace Heywood Broun, the last two lines of the poem are neither “a wholly spurious humility” nor “the most insincere line ever written by mortal man.” As much as Kilmer may have valued his art, he recognized Divinely-made beauty far surpasses literary artifice.
Kilmer’s tree “that looks at God all day” also pointed him to God. In his essay on the British poet Francis Thompson (“The Hound of Heaven”), Kilmer notes that he was derided for his religious imagery, which said more about the philosophical predilections of the critical community than the value of Thompson’s poetry because, as Kilmer insists, Thompson “made of man’s relation to God and God’s relation to man a poem that is unsurpassed in the literature of spiritual experience. And all great poetry deals with spiritual experience.”
Man has often found God through the world of nature. The First Vatican Council even teaches that “the one true God, our Creator and Lord, can be known with certainty by the light of human reason, from things that are made” (Denzinger, 3004). Kilmer clearly found inspiration in a tree and, although Kilmer scholars have pondered what tree inspired him (a tree near the Marian Grotto at Notre Dame University?) I personally like the argument Guy Davenport puts forward: Kilmer who was reading about child labor, and also saw trees, connected these to a social justice goal: the “fresh air fund” that got kids out of the city to country camps.
But my interest in “Trees” is not about Kilmer’s arboreal muse but, rather, the religious symbolism he presents. In a world that has flattened out the man-God relationship and degraded ecclesiastical art and architecture to the mundane, the strong vertical line of transcendence in “Trees” is perhaps lost. One should remember that neo-Gothic was strong in church architecture of the period, especially in ethnic churches (now often closed and sold in the name of local “church renewal”), creating the line that draws man from earth to heaven.
The tree is also a symbol of contingency. One of the ways human beings discover God is through the recognition that things, no matter how great or noble or beautiful they are, simply did not have to be. It is indeed stunning that they are, but they did not have to be. And it is that recognition of the gap between what is and what need not have been that has led men to discover God. Avery Cardinal Dulles speaks of his contemplation of just such a contingent tree in Harvard Yard, which led him from agnosticism to faith.
One could point to other allusions in Kilmer’s poem:
- to the tree as aestival home of the birds of the air which make homes in its branches in good season (cf. Mt 13:32);
- to the tree as home of a “nest of robins”—I will not delve into whether Kilmer may have known the traditional Irish legend (Kilmer was a devotee of things Irish) of robin red-breast and its nexus to the Crucifixion, the primordial “tree”: see here;
- to the tree decked with snow, whose whiteness alludes to purity (cf. Ps 51:7);
- to the tree that stands up in the rain, against test and trial.
As I said, “Trees” is perhaps the most remembered of a largely forgotten legacy of this Catholic bard. During 2018, perhaps we might turn some attention to his work.