Joyce Kilmer was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey on December 6, 1886. He attended Rutgers and graduated from Columbia University before becoming an Editor with Funk and Wagnall’s Company. He served as Literary Editor of “The Churchman”, an Anglican newspaper and in 1913 became a member of the staff of The New York Times. His most famous poem is “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.
When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, Kilmer was a family man with a wife and five children. He would not have been required to serve in the military. Never-the-less he enlisted as a private in the Seventh Regiment, New York National Guard. At his request he then transferred to the 165th Infantry, the old Fighting 69th. Once in France he quickly attained the rank of Sergeant and was attached to the newly organized Regimental Intelligence staff as an observer. Because of Sergeant Kilmer’s poor eyesight he volunteered for night patrol. The patrol during darkness was the most dangerous but it was also an equalizer for the near blind Kilmer. He spent many nights on patrol in no-man’s land gathering information which would be of tactical importance to the Regiment and the Division. While in France Kilmer wrote this poem:
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
This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.
On July 30th 1918, during the battle of the Ourcq, Kilmer attached himself as adjutant to Major William Donovan who commanded the First Battalion. Donovan’s adjutant, Lieutenant Oliver Ames had been killed in combat the day before. The Regiment’s principle objective was the high ground of Muercy Farm. A sniper’s bullet ended the life of Joyce Kilmer at the age of 31. Ames and Kilmer were buried side by side in a creek bed on that farm just four months before the 11th month, the 11th day and the 11th hour of 1918 which marked the cessation of hostilities. That same date each year is now observed as Veterans Day.
Today Sergeant Kilmer is interred in Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and WWI Memorial about 30 miles northeast of Paris. The 40 acre cemetery contains 6,012 headstones including 100 Stars of David, 241 MIAs, 597 unknown soldiers, and seven sets of brothers. Most had fought in the vicinity and in the Marne Valley during the summer of 1918. The headstones are lined up in four square burial plots with a pink granite memorial in the back is flanked by a Chapel and a Map Room.
Joyce Kilmer was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for bravery. Camp Kilmer in New Jersey was named in his honor; it became the largest processing center for the U.S. Army and operated from 1942 until 2009.
At the time of his entry into military service Kilmer was considered a premiere American poet. Much of his work expressed his deep religious beliefs. It is impossible to imagine the future contributions that might have been made by Joyce Kilmer and millions of other Americans lost forever beyond the seas.
Please share some of his poetry with your children who are not likely to hear it otherwise.
In a wood they call the Rouge Bouquet
There is a new-made grave to-day,
Built by never a spade nor pick
Yet covered with earth ten metres thick.
There lie many fighting men,
Dead in their youthful prime,
Never to laugh nor love again
Nor taste the Summertime.
For Death came flying through the air
And stopped his flight at the dugout stair,
Touched his prey and left them there,
Clay to clay.
He hid their bodies stealthily
In the soil of the land they fought to free
And fled away.
Now over the grave abrupt and clear
Three volleys ring;
And perhaps their brave young spirits hear
The bugle sing:
“Go to sleep!
Go to sleep!
Slumber well where the shell screamed and fell.
Let your rifles rest on the muddy floor,
You will not need them any more.
Now at last,
Go to sleep!”
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.
Never fear but in the skies
Saints and angels stand
Smiling with their holy eyes
On this new-come band.
St. Michael’s sword darts through the air
And touches the aureole on his hair
As he sees them stand saluting there,
His stalwart sons;
And Patrick, Brigid, Columkill
Rejoice that in veins of warriors still
The Gael’s blood runs.
And up to Heaven’s doorway floats,
From the wood called Rouge Bouquet,
A delicate cloud of bugle notes
That softly say:
Comrades true, born anew, peace to you!
Your souls shall be where the heroes are
And your memory shine like the morning-star.
Brave and dear,
Shield us here.
“Dulce et decorum est”
The bugle echoes shrill and sweet,
But not of war it sings to-day.
The road is rhythmic with the feet
Of men-at-arms who come to pray.
The roses blossom white and red
On tombs where weary soldiers lie;
Flags wave above the honored dead
And martial music cleaves the sky.
Above their wreath-strewn graves we kneel,
They kept the faith and fought the fight.
Through flying lead and crimson steel
They plunged for Freedom and the Right.
May we, their grateful children, learn
Their strength, who lie beneath this sod,
Who went through fire and death to earn
At last the accolade of God.
In shining rank on rank arrayed
They march, the legions of the Lord;
He is their Captain unafraid,
The Prince of Peace . . . Who brought a sword.
Citizen of the World
No longer of Him be it said
“He hath no place to lay His head.”
In every land a constant lamp
Flames by His small and mighty camp.
There is no strange and distant place
That is not gladdened by His face.
And every nation kneels to hail
The Splendour shining through Its veil.
Cloistered beside the shouting street,
Silent, He calls me to His feet.
Imprisoned for His love of me
He makes my spirit greatly free.
And through my lips that uttered sin
The King of Glory enters in.
The Fourth Shepherd
(For Thomas Walsh)
On nights like this the huddled sheep
Are like white clouds upon the grass,
And merry herdsmen guard their sleep
And chat and watch the big stars pass.
It is a pleasant thing to lie
Upon the meadow on the hill
With kindly fellowship near by
Of sheep and men of gentle will.
I lean upon my broken crook
And dream of sheep and grass and men —
O shameful eyes that cannot look
On any honest thing again!
On bloody feet I clambered down
And fled the wages of my sin,
I am the leavings of the town,
And meanly serve its meanest inn.
I tramp the courtyard stones in grief,
While sleep takes man and beast to her.
And every cloud is calling “Thief!”
And every star calls “Murderer!”
The hand of God is sure and strong,
Nor shall a man forever flee
The bitter punishment of wrong.
The wrath of God is over me!
With ashen bread and wine of tears
Shall I be solaced in my pain.
I wear through black and endless years
Upon my brow the mark of Cain.
Poor vagabond, so old and mild,
Will they not keep him for a night?
And She, a woman great with child,
So frail and pitiful and white.
Good people, since the tavern door
Is shut to you, come here instead.
See, I have cleansed my stable floor
And piled fresh hay to make a bed.
Here is some milk and oaten cake.
Lie down and sleep and rest you fair,
Nor fear, O simple folk, to take
The bounty of a child of care.
On nights like this the huddled sheep —
I never saw a night so fair.
How huge the sky is, and how deep!
And how the planets flash and glare!
At dawn beside my drowsy flock
What winged music I have heard!
But now the clouds with singing rock
As if the sky were turning bird.
O blinding Light, O blinding Light!
Burn through my heart with sweetest pain.
O flaming Song, most loudly bright,
Consume away my deadly stain!
The stable glows against the sky,
And who are these that throng the way?
My three old comrades hasten by
And shining angels kneel and pray.
The door swings wide — I cannot go —
I must and yet I dare not see.
Lord, who am I that I should know —
Lord, God, be merciful to me!
O Whiteness, whiter than the fleece
Of new-washed sheep on April sod!
O Breath of Life, O Prince of Peace,
O Lamb of God, O Lamb of God!
(For Robert Cortez Holliday)
If I should live in a forest
And sleep underneath a tree,
No grove of impudent saplings
Would make a home for me.
I’d go where the old oaks gather,
Serene and good and strong,
And they would not sigh and tremble
And vex me with a song.
The pleasantest sort of poet
Is the poet who’s old and wise,
With an old white beard and wrinkles
About his kind old eyes.
For these young flippertigibbets
A-rhyming their hours away
They won’t be still like honest men
And listen to what you say.
The young poet screams forever
About his sex and his soul;
But the old man listens, and smokes his pipe,
And polishes its bowl.
There should be a club for poets
Who have come to seventy year.
They should sit in a great hall drinking
Red wine and golden beer.
They would shuffle in of an evening,
Each one to his cushioned seat,
And there would be mellow talking
And silence rich and sweet.
There is no peace to be taken
With poets who are young,
For they worry about the wars to be fought
And the songs that must be sung.
But the old man knows that he’s in his chair
And that God’s on His throne in the sky.
So he sits by the fire in comfort
And he lets the world spin by.