Joyce Kilmer is known best as the author of a wildly popular poem – frequently mocked by the literati – called “Trees”, which contains the famous lines: “I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree”. Yet this poet, journalist and soldier was once considered the “Catholic laureate” of America. And since this year marks the centenary of Kilmer’s untimely death, age 31 at the hands of a German sniper during the closing months of World War I, it seems an ideal time to remind Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic of Kilmer’s remarkable witness to hope in a troubled age.
Kilmer was a devoted family man, the father of five children with his wife Aline, also a poet. Though raised in the Episcopal Church, Kilmer had flirted with radicalism, becoming for a time a wild-eyed socialist and atheist. (His wife recalled having to pray secretly for her husband under the bedcovers at night after he forbade her to pray.) Yet both Kilmers were drawn to the Catholic faith, and when their second child, Rose, was struck with infant paralysis, they began to receive instruction. “When faith did come,” Kilmer wrote to his Jesuit priest friend Fr James Daly, “it came, I think, by way of my little paralysed daughter. Her lifeless hands led me; I think her tiny still feet know beautiful paths.”
Joyce and Aline entered the Church in November 1913. In the intervening years, before America’s entrance into the war in April 1917, Kilmer worked tirelessly at his literary career. “I have delight chiefly in talking veiled Catholicism to non-Catholics,” he confessed to a friend, “in humbly endeavouring to be an Apostle to Bohemia.” His poetry continued to celebrate the simple pleasures of American life – Main Street, the corner deli, the commuter train, the local fishing hole – taking for its inspiration the humble Carpenter of Nazareth.
The gate clangs to – we stir – we sway –and then
We thunder through the dark. The long train weaves
Its gloomy way. At last above the eaves
We see awhile God’s day, then night again.
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