I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
Who hasn’t heard these lines recited by his grandparent? They have secured the fame of their author, Joyce Kilmer, but perhaps they obscure the breadth of his legacy. In addition to his poem “Trees” and a popular anthology of Catholic poetry, Kilmer was one of the most promising American poets of his day, a Catholic convert, a soldier, and a Knight of Columbus. This summer, Dr. Amy Fahey, Visiting Fellow at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, is aiming to enrich our understanding of the man behind the “Trees.”
Dr. Fahey published an article on Kilmer in the June issue of Columbia, the Knights of Columbus magazine. She explains how “Kilmer’s writing and personal witness touched millions of people during his life, and his legacy continues to be celebrated 100 years after his untimely death.” The article, “Poet, Soldier, Knight,” may be read on the Columbia website.
Kilmer himself wrote an article for the forerunner of Columbia, The Columbiad. He was also a noted lecturer. He famously spoke about George Washington to a packed audience at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh as part of a patriotic event organized by the Knights of Columbus in 1917.
Also in 1917, Kilmer enlisted in the New York National Guard. That autumn Kilmer was deployed; he was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet in France in 1918. One of his last poems, “Prayer of a Soldier in France,” describes the life of the Christian soldier:
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.
Dr. Amy Fahey will also deliver a talk about Joyce Kilmer at the Knights of Columbus museum in New Haven, Connecticut, on July 30th. Her lecture is part of the Museum’s exhibition, World War I: Beyond the Front Lines. More information can be found on the museum website.