Joyce Kilmer and the Fighting 69th

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.

That poem written by Alfred Joyce Kilmer, better known as Joyce Kilmer, in 1914 is, unfortunately, all most Americans remember today about Kilmer which is regrettable, because he was a devout Catholic and an American patriot and he deserves better than relative historical oblivion.

Born in 1886 into an Episcopalian family in New Brunswick , New Jersey,  Kilmer studied at the Rutgers College Grammar School, Rutgers College and graduated from Colombia in 1908.  Shortly after graduation he married Aline Murray, the love of his life, a poet in her own right.  Together they had a happy home and five children to fill it.

Initially teaching Latin in Morristown, New Jersey, Kilmer quickly embarked on a literary life, submitting essays and poems to the various magazines of the day.  From 1909 to 1912 he worked on the Funk and Wagnalls’ Dictionary.  In 1912 he became literary editor of The Churchman, a publication of the Episcopalian Church.  In 1913 he made the leap to being an ink-stained wretch and became a features writer for the New York Times.

In 1912 the Kilmers welcomed into this world their third child and second daughter, Rosamond (called Rose) Kilburn Kilmer.  Rose was afflicted with infantile paralysis.  A sick child often causes parents to look seriously at their faith, and the Kilmers were no different. Their conversion to Catholicism was no doubt helped along by Father James J. Daly, SJ, who became a good friend to the Kilmers after Rose’s birth, and who had been from 1898-1908 chaplain of the Fighting 69th, a New York National Guard regiment that was to play such a dominating role in Kilmer’s future.  Here is some of Kilmer’s correspondence with Father Daly that continued until Kilmer’s death.  In 1914, Kilmer wrote to Father Daly about his conversion:

“Of course you understand my conversion. I am beginning to understand it. I believed in the Catholic position, the Catholic view of ethics and aesthetics, for a long time. But I wanted something not intellectual, some conviction not mental – in fact I wanted Faith. Just off Broadway, on the way from the Hudson Tube Station to the Times Building, there is a Church, called the Church of the Holy Innocents. Since it is in the heart of the Tenderloin, this name is strangely appropriate – for there surely is need of youth and innocence. Well, every morning for months I stopped on my way to the office and prayed in this Church for faith. 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.” With the publication of the Tree poem to considerable critical acclaim in 1914, Kilmer entered into a ceaseless round of lecturing and writing.  He served as poetry editor of the magazine Current Literature and contributing editor of Warner’s Library of the World’s Best Literature.  A partial list of his publications is here.   Kilmer combined his love of the Faith and his love of poetry in his Anthology of Catholic Poetry.

Lacking any skill in poetry, I will merely state that I find much of Kilmer’s work to be both incisive and yet mysterious.  A fair sample is this:

The Robe of Christ

(For Cecil Chesterton)

At the foot of the Cross on Calvary

Three soldiers sat and diced,

And one of them was the Devil

And he won the Robe of Christ.

When the Devil comes in his proper form

To the chamber where I dwell,

I know him and make the Sign of the Cross

Which drives him back to Hell.

And when he comes like a friendly man

And puts his hand in mine,

The fervour in his voice is not

From love or joy or wine.

And when he comes like a woman,

With lovely, smiling eyes,

Black dreams float over his golden head

Like a swarm of carrion flies.

Now many a million tortured souls

In his red halls there be:

Why does he spend his subtle craft

In hunting after me?

Kings, queens and crested warriors

Whose memory rings through time,

These are his prey, and what to him

Is this poor man of rhyme,

That he, with such laborious skill,

Should change from role to role,

Should daily act so many a part

To get my little soul?

Oh, he can be the forest,

And he can be the sun,

Or a buttercup, or an hour of rest

When the weary day is done.

I saw him through a thousand veils,

And has not this sufficed?

Now, must I look on the Devil robed

In the radiant Robe of Christ?

He comes, and his face is sad and mild,

With thorns his head is crowned;

There are great bleeding wounds in his feet,

And in each hand a wound.

How can I tell, who am a fool,

If this be Christ or no?

Those bleeding hands outstretched to me!

Those eyes that love me so!

I see the Robe — I look — I hope — I fear — but there is one

Who will direct my troubled mind;

Christ’s Mother knows her Son.

O Mother of Good Counsel, lend

Intelligence to me!

Encompass me with wisdom,

Thou Tower of Ivory!

“This is the Man of Lies,” she says,

“Disguised with fearful art:

He has the wounded hands and feet,

But not the wounded heart.”

Beside the Cross on Calvary

She watched them as they diced.

She saw the Devil join the game

And win the Robe of Christ.

 

A few days after the US entered World War I in April of 1917, Kilmer enlisted in the Seventh regiment of the New York National Guard before seeking , and receiving, with the help of Father Francis P. Duffy, regimental chaplain of the Fighting 69th, a transfer to the Fighting 69th.  The poet and the priest rapidly became the best of friends.  Kilmer was not unmindful of the sacrifice that his enlistment entailed for his family.  “I feel the pain of my sacrifice is hard on both of us (me and Aline), but I realize also that God wills me to do my duty in this manner; and, therefore, I have every reason to believe that He will take better care of my wife and children than I should ever hope to do. I have considered this step I am taking from every side and I feel there is no doubt that I have an obligation to join the colors. I would be ashamed later on to look at the children if I don’t volunteer. However other married men feel about going, I consider my enlisting as a duty I owe to God and country.”

In joining the 69th Kilmer was joining a regiment that had a proud record of combat in the Civil War, during which, according to legend, it had acquired the title “Fighting” from no less an authority on such matters than Robert E. Lee.  He quickly rose from private to sergeant.  Offered a commission as an officer if he would transfer out of the 69th, now officially known as the 165th Infantry regiment, Kilmer declined, stating that he would rather be a sergeant with the 69th than an officer in another regiment.  Before sailing for France with the 69th, Kilmer knew great tragedy and joy:  his beloved daughter Rose died in September 1917 and his son Christopher was born 12 days later.  The regiment sailed on October 31.

While in the Army Kilmer continued to write poetry and essays.  In this poem he found the sufferings he endured as nothing compared to what Christ had endured for him.

Prayer of a Soldier in France (1918)

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.

At first Kilmer served as a statistician with the 69th, a “bullet-proof” job as he put it, away from the fighting.  This did not suit him, and in April he was transferred to the regiment’s intelligence section.  He soon earned a reputation for complete fearlessness in the scouting missions he participated in of the front lines of the enemy units.

The Fighting 69th as part of the Rainbow Division, the name given to the division because it consisted of National Guard units drawn from across America like a rainbow, took part in the Second Battle of the Marne  in July and August 1918, the turning point of World War I.  Since March 1918 the Germans had been on the offensive and now were within striking distance of Paris.  Reinforced by a quarter of a million American doughboys, the French were ready to launch a counter-offensive and drive the Germans back.  The Rainbow Dvision was in constant combat, and on the morning of July 30th, Sergeant Joyce Kilmer, who was scouting  ahead of the division to locate German machine gun positions near the Ourcq river, was killed by a German sniper.   An account of his death is here.  Kilmer was awarded post-humously the Croix de Guerre by the French Republic.  He was 31 years old.

Joyce Kilmer had begun a book on the 69th during the war.  Father Duffy took up the task and the book was published after the war as Father Duffy’s Story With An Historical Appendix by Joyce Kilmer.  In the forward to the book, Father Duffy wrote: “Joyce Kilmer was to have written this book. I took over the task after his death in battle. The manuscript he left had been hurriedly written, at intervals in a busy soldier existence, which interested him far more than literary work. I have taken the liberty of adding his work, incomplete though it is, to my own; because I feel that Kilmer would be glad at having his name associated withthe story of the Regiment which had his absolute devotion; and because I cannot resist the temptation of associating with my own the name of one of the noblest specimens of humanity that has existed in our times.”

His wife of course was devastated by his death.  She went on with her life with courage and determination to raise their children, pursue her career as a writer, and to preserve the memory and work of her husband.  In 1919 she published an anthology of her poems, Candles That Burn, dedicated “To Joyce”, which contained this poem:

      AFTER GRIEVING

When I was young I was so sad!

I was so sad! I did not know

Why any living thing was glad

When one must some day sorrow so.

But now that grief has come to me

My heart is like a bird set free.

I always knew that it would come;

I always felt it waiting there:

Its shadow kept my glad voice dumb

And crushed my gay soul with despair.

But now that I have lived with grief

I feel an exquisite relief.

Athletes who know their proven strength,

Ships that have shamed the hurricane:

These are my brothers, and at length

I shall come back to joy again.

However hard my life may be

I know it shall not conquer me.

Many honors came to Kilmer after his death.  Numerous schools and parks were named in his honor.  The Fighting 69th remembers him.  Perhaps the honor he would most have cherished is the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina named in his honor on July 10, 1936.

A poet always should have the last word.  Here is a poem that Kilmer wrote six weeks before his death.

The Peacemaker  

Upon his will he binds a radiant chain,

For Freedom’s sake he is no longer free.

It is his task, the slave of Liberty,

With his own blood to wipe away a stain.

That pain may cease, he yields his flesh to pain.   

To banish war, he must a warrior be.   

He dwells in Night, eternal Dawn to see,

And gladly dies, abundant life to gain.  

What matters Death, if Freedom be not dead?   

No flags are fair, if Freedom’s flag be furled.

Who fights for Freedom, goes with joyful tread   

To meet the fires of Hell against him hurled,

And has for captain Him whose thorn-wreathed head   

Smiles from the Cross upon a conquered world.

15 Responses to Joyce Kilmer and the Fighting 69th

  • I cannot thank you enough for this about Joyce Kilmer, Donald McClarey. All i ever knew was TREES and that Kilmer died in WWI.
    .
    Joyce Kilmer realized that God loved him and his family more than he, as a man, could know to love. Kilmer trusted God.

  • I wish here to make a comment, but will wait and see if I be accepted

  • ok I guess this went thru. fr. duffy was my mother’s pastor in NYC and her brother james was very close to him. fr. duffy gave him his gold watch so he could enter the seminary. fr. duffy and my mom’s dad both died in 1932 then james entered the army and died on the leopoldville ship, Christmas even 1944. this ship with the loss of 800 was kept a secret for near fifty years. the men were from every state in America with the exception of two states, but the biggest figure came from NYC

  • Pat, which parish in Manhattan?

  • The link at the end describes what I think that this poet universally expressed for many souls.

    “The Robe of Christ”

    At the foot of the Cross on Calvary Three soldiers sat and diced, And one of them was the Devil And he won the Robe of Christ.
    When the Devil comes in his proper form To the chamber where I dwell, I know him and make the Sign of the Cross Which drives him back to Hell.
    And when he comes like a friendly man And puts his hand in mine, The fervour in his voice is not From love or joy or wine.
    -

    http://bostoncatholicinsider.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/cardinal-omalley-should-resign-usccb-pro-life-post-for-honoring-john-kerry-at-bc-graduation/

  • Pat: “The link at the end describes what I think that this poet universally expressed for many souls.
    “The Robe of Christ”
    At the foot of the Cross on Calvary Three soldiers sat and diced, And one of them was the Devil And he won the Robe of Christ.
    When the Devil comes in his proper form To the chamber where I dwell, I know him and make the Sign of the Cross Which drives him back to Hell.
    And when he comes like a friendly man And puts his hand in mine, The fervour in his voice is not From love or joy or wine.”
    .
    Joyce Kilmer taught us how to exorcise the devil.

  • Don:
    Beautiful and timely remembrance of Kilmer who may be best known for “Trees” and for his name being appended to a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop near where he lived. He deserves to be known for much more. Thanks for this. I am trying to pass it on to many more viewers.
    Peter

  • Thank you Pete! I first became aware of his war record watching as a kid reruns on TV of the 1940 Pat O’Brien-James Cagney classic The Fighting 69th:

  • Thank you, Donald. Being a bit long in tooth, I know of Joyce Kilmer but now more, including, “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?), the part somehow missed when memorizing the rest of “Prayer of a Soldier in France”. The bride of my youth and Mr. Kilmer share a first name, providing a joyful reminder of this saintly soldier.

  • Every time I hear or read Trees by Joyce Kilmer I think: Oh, oh, mixed metaphors. A tree cannot have a mouth, hair, and bosom and at the same time “leafy” arms. But I am being picayune…and I am glad the poem has survived this shortcoming.

  • Kmbold: “Poems are made by fools like me,
    But only God can make a tree.”

  • I reckon so.

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