“Pray that I may love God more. It seems to me that if I can learn to love God more passionately, more constantly, without distractions, that absolutely nothing else can matter…. I receive Holy Communion every morning, so it ought to be all the easier for me to attain this object of my prayers. I got Faith, you know, by praying for it. I hope to get Love the same way.”
If you think, as I did, that these sound like the words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower, insert the phrase “except when I am in the trenches” where the ellipses appear. For these are actually from the final letter of Sergeant Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918), written to Sister of St. Joseph M. Emerentia Lonergan just days before his death.
When Sergeant Kilmer, sent ahead to scout the enemy position in the bloody Battle of the Ourcq River, was killed by a German sniper bullet on the fields of France a hundred years ago today—July 30, 1918—the entire nation deeply mourned the loss of a renowned poet, journalist, and Catholic. At the time of his death, Kilmer was firmly established as the “Catholic laureate” of America, having published the wildly popular “Trees, and Other Poems” in 1914. In his prose style, he was likened to Chesterton and Belloc (whom he knew). In his private life, he was the consummate family man, dedicated to his wife Aline and his five children. In his professional career, he was considered a force of nature, a tireless lecturer, and a prolific writer (he did not know how to type, but could dictate 4,000–5,000 words an hour).
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Buried in a shallow grave beside the Ourcq, with a simple white cross for a marker, Kilmer was honored back home with a solemn high requiem mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. In “A Memoir of My Son Sergeant Joyce Kilmer” (does it not pain you that any mother ever had to pen such a work?), Annie Kilburn Kilmer, herself a poet and a lifelong Anglican, movingly recalls: “The Memorial Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral will always remain with me as a beatific vision. It seemed as though the great Catholic Church opened Her arms wide and said: ‘All this pomp and splendor I gladly give to dear Joyce Kilmer, who found his greatest comfort in his brief life with Me.’”
Fools Like Me
Shortly after Kilmer’s death, a two-volume collection of his poems, essays, and letters was published by George H. Doran Company, followed by an additional volume of prose pieces entitled The Circus, and Other Fugitive Pieces. These writings reveal Kilmer to be a man of incredible erudition, mirth, and piety, devoted to articulating the beauty of the Catholic faith in America and elsewhere (in addition to penning brilliant essays on Belloc, Chesterton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson, and others, he translated contemporary Catholic Belgian poets like Emile Verhaeren).
Nearly a decade after his death, his friend and fellow journalist Charles Willis Thompson declared that “he has taken his place in literature and in history … everything connected with him becomes not only of interest but essential to the understanding of him.” Writing over a generation later, a columnist in Columbia magazine declared, “Joyce Kilmer has enshrined his name in the hearts of his countrymen … his life has served as an inspiration for millions of young Americans.”
Over the course of the last several decades, though, Kilmer has sunk heavily into obscurity (the full reasons would require a separate article). Apart from “Trees,”—which has been routinely disparaged by Catholic and secular critics alike—virtually no one knows anything by or about the man who once wrote: “Poems are made by fools like me/ But only God can make a tree.”
A quick YouTube search of just one of Kilmer’s poems, “The House with Nobody in It,” yields scores of videos of elderly women and men, many in wheelchairs or retirement homes, reciting the entire twenty-eight line poem from memory, while their children or grandchildren capture the moment on their cell phones and listen with polite, if slightly bored, forbearance.
These octogenarians were schoolchildren at a time when children—gasp!—actually memorized poetry. For several decades, the corpus of popular poetry invariably included Kilmer’s works—not only “Trees,” but “The House with Nobody in It,” “Main Street,” “The Snowman in the Yard,” “The Delicatessen,” and others.
If these seem like mundane and rather sentimental topics for poetry, that was precisely Kilmer’s intention. Kilmer’s poems are highly democratic and anti-materialistic, full of praise for ordinary men, women, children, and their ordinary pursuits. In “The Snowman in the Yard,” for example, Kilmer contrasts his chaotic, unkempt house full of children playing in the snow with that of his wealthy neighbors, whose home is manicured, spacious, prosperous—and empty:
But I have something no architect or gardener ever made,
A thing that is shaped by the busy touch of little mittened hands:
And the Judge would give up his lonely estate, where the level snow is laid
For the tiny house with the trampled yard, the yard where the snowman stands.
At the Mercy of Circumstances
Kilmer came to realize in a very personal way the utter preciousness of simple pleasures. When his daughter, Rose, was stricken with infant paralysis, any small improvement was a miracle of delight to him.
Writing just a few weeks after his conversion to Catholicism, Kilmer wrote to Jesuit Father James Daly, “You will be glad to hear of our Christmas present from Soeur Therese. Rose can lift her left forearm. I know that you have been getting her aid for us. Please tell us how to show our gratitude to her and to you.” (Kilmer here obviously speaks of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and it is interesting to note that her intercession is invoked by Kilmer and Fr. Daly several months before Pius X’s opening of the process of her canonization in June of 1914.)
Kilmer had entered the Church on December 5, 1913, after a lengthy correspondence with Daly, who taught at Campion College and was himself a poet. Kilmer retained a lifelong devotion to St. Nicholas, patron saint of children and his own special patron (his birthday fell on December 6). Writing from France to his wife Aline in April 1918, he notes with his characteristic blend of reverence and playfulness: “We have a magnificent old church in this town… And right by the tower door is a big statue of St. Nicholas of Bari, in his Episcopal robes, and hopping around his feet are two little bits of babies he saved and brought back to life after they’d been cut up and pickled. Very nice! You’d like it! Pray to St. Nicholas for me…”
When Rose died just days before his final son Christopher was born and Kilmer was deployed for France, he wrote to Father Daly, “There was a Mission in our parish-church just a couple of blocks from the house, and while Rose died the voices of the Sisters singing “O Salutaris Hostia” could be heard in the room…. Certainly Rose makes Heaven dearer to us.”
Kilmer’s holy zeal is amply demonstrated in an episode early after his conversion. While traveling from his home in Mahwah, New Jersey, to conduct an interview with Canadian poet Bliss Carman, Kilmer dashed in front of a moving train, was dragged a considerable distance, and was rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, New York, with multiple injuries, including fractured ribs. “He entered into the spirit of the experience with much relish,” recalls his friend Robert Cortes Holliday. “It isn’t every day that one gets hit by a train, nor everybody that has three ribs broken. Exhilarating kind of thing, when you see it that way!” Kilmer found it “an entertaining thing to be at the mercy of circumstances over which you had no control.” He wrote to Father Daly: “I have been very comfortable in a delightful hospital …. run by particularly amiable Sisters of Charity.” He continues by relating that he had received the Blessed Sacrament shortly before the accident: “to this fact I attribute my escape from death—since at the place where I was struck several men have been killed.”
Kilmer’s opportunity to live out his faith “at the mercy of circumstances over which you had no control” was forged tenfold in his experiences in France. His most famous war poem, Rouge Bouquet, commemorates the death of several fellow soldiers after they were buried alive when the Germans shelled their dugout. Yet unlike some of his infamous English poetic contemporaries, Kilmer’s war experiences did not plunge him into despair or nihilism. As his dear friend and the chaplain of the “Fighting 69th” (the 165th Infantry), Fr. Francis Duffy, wrote of Kilmer: “There was something of what the Scots call ‘fey’ about him as a soldier. He was absolutely the coolest and most indifferent man in the face of danger I have ever seen. It was not for lack of love of life, for he enjoyed his life as a soldier—his only cross was his distance from home. It was partly from his inborn courage and devotion—he would not stint his sacrifice—partly his deep and real belief that what God wills is best.”
Ora Pro Nobis
It is impossible, after reading Kilmer’s poetry, essays, letters, and the testimony of those who knew him, not to trace the hand of God in all of his brief life.
Over three decades ago, longtime Columbia columnist Bernard Casserly suggested that the cause for canonization of Kilmer be considered. In the past several years, we’ve seen suggestions for promoting the cause of modern Catholic writers like G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O’Connor. A few years ago, George Weigel wrote in First Things that if the cause for O’Connor’s beatification was ever opened, “The Habit of Being (and the lectures found in the Library of America edition of her collected works) should be the principal documentary evidence for considering her an exemplar of heroic virtue, worthy to be commended to the whole Church” (presumably Weigel hadn’t yet read O’Connor’s early prayer journal, published in 2013).
In the case of Kilmer, his entire corpus—occasional essays, poems, letters, short stories, even a searing satirical one-act play of early twentieth-century “isms,” “Some Mischief Still” (taken from the proverb, “Satan will find some mischief still”)—as well as the overwhelming testimony of all who knew and loved him, could be brought forth as evidence of his profound purity of soul, and his desire to serve the Lord of Love.
As Robert Cortes Holliday, who was decidedly not a co-religionist, acknowledges: “He was so unlike all other young men anyone had ever seen walking about, so much brighter and purer, or some indescribable thing, that he did not seem altogether real.”
In a reminiscence entitled “Kilmer and Campion”—Kilmer frequently lectured at the now-defunct Jesuit school in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin—a contributor wrote: “I am certain that if Kilmer had been a French or Italian Catholic who had lived so thoroughly a Catholic life and died so gloriously for his native land, today little children would be lisping their prayers to him.”
Kilmer’s poetry is simple, championing those increasingly mocked or marginalized in a modern mechanized materialistic world: calloused workmen, homeless beggars, vagrant gypsies, grotesque clowns, and malformed children. Kilmer knew, as Flannery O’Connor after him would affirm, that the Catholic writer in the modern world must be a champion of “freaks,” for all freaks are poets, and all poets freaks. In an amazing little essay called “The Circus” (amazing partially because it so anticipates Flannery O’Connor and partially because it is so forceful and true and good), Kilmer writes: “In the circus, the poets … are to be found in little tents—the side shows…. This man exhibits his lack of faith in a sonnet-sequence; that man exhibits his lack of bones in a tent. This poet shows a soul scarred by the cruel whips of injustice; this man a back scarred by the tattooer’s needles.”
Kilmer would rather, with the Saints, be a holy fool than embrace the soul-killing trends of his day (and ours). His life, his death, and all his writings bear witness to his unstinting devotion to “Lady Folly,” and we would do well to read and imitate him, and to invoke his aid in our perilous age.
What distant mountains thrill and glow
Beneath our Lady Folly’s tread?
Why has she left us, wise in woe,
Shrewd, practical, uncomforted?
We cannot love or dream or sing,
We are too cynical to pray,
There is no joy in anything
Since Lady Folly went away.
Many a knight and gentle maid,
Whose glory shines from years gone by,
Through ignorance was unafraid
And as a fool knew how to die.
Saint Folly rode beside Jehanne
And broke the ranks of Hell with her,
And Folly’s smile shone brightly on
Christ’s plaything, Brother Juniper.
Our minds are troubled and defiled
By study in a weary school.
O for the folly of a child!
The ready courage of the fool!
Lord, crush our knowledge utterly
And make us humble, simple men;
And cleansed of wisdom, let us see
Our Lady Folly’s face again.