On Christmas morning, I was surprised and delighted to receive a small book titled “‘Trees’ & Other Poems” by Joyce Kilmer.
“Trees” was my mother’s favorite poem and I have loved it since she taught it to me as a little girl. Until I opened my gift, I had no idea that Kilmer had written so many others.
First published in 1914, the collection of 31poems addresses topics as varied as “Memorial Day,” “Alarm Clocks,” “Wealth” and “The House With Nobody In It.” The diversity of subjects made me curious to know more about Joyce Kilmer.
I learned he was born Dec. 6, 1886, in New Jersey and named Alfred Joyce for two priests at the family’s church, Alfred R. Taylor and the Rev. Dr. Elisha Brooks Joyce. His mother was a little known writer and composer while his physician-chemist father achieved some fame as the creator of Johnson and Johnson’s baby powder.
Educated at Rutgers and Columbia, Joyce Kilmer loved the classics, edited the school’s newspapers, won a prize for oratory and participated in debating. Following graduation he married fellow poet Aline Murray, with whom he would have five children. It was to his wife’s mother, Mrs. Henry Mills Alden, that he dedicated “Trees.”
Beginning in 1908, Joyce Kilmer steadily worked at writing essays, poems and book reviews. For several years he was employed by Funk and Wagnalls to define words (at five cents each) for their new dictionary. He later wrote for The New York Times, lectured and published four books.
Soon after the United States entered World War I, Kilmer enlisted in the New York National Guard, rising quickly to the rank of sergeant after refusing an officer’s commission. Deployed to Europe, he volunteered to lead a scouting party to search for German machine guns. Shot by a sniper, Joyce Kilmer died at age 31. He was posthumously awarded the War Cross by the French Republic.
A century after it was written, “Trees” continues to appear in anthologies and be memorized by schoolchildren. Although widely ridiculed by literary critics for being too simple and overly sentimental, it has been embraced by ordinary people worldwide. The poem and Kilmer’s heroism prompted the U.S. Forest Service to dedicate a 3,800-acre tract of virgin hardwoods as the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
— Joanna Angle is a Master Tree Farmer and 2012 South Carolina Tree Farmer of the Year. Her Cedarleaf Farm in Chester County is a Certified Stewardship Forest and part of the American Tree Farm System.