Prose & Poetry - Alfred Joyce Kilmer

Alfred Joyce Kilmer Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918), the noted American poet killed in action during World War I, was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on 6 December 1886.

Educated first at Rutgers College in 1904 and then at Columbia University, Kilmer worked from 1909-12 - after a brief stint as a salesman - for Funk and Wagnall, helping to edit their Standard Dictionary.

Although Kilmer exhibited early signs of radicalism and was indeed something of a socialist, he nevertheless retained a deep religious sense throughout his life.  A one-time Literary Editor of The Churchman newspaper, an Anglican journal, Kilmer himself converted to Catholicism in 1913.

In June 1908 Kilmer married Aline; they had five children.  In 1911 Kilmer's first volume of poetry, entitled A Summer of Love, was published to acclaim.  In 1913 he joined The New York Times, also writing for The Nation and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.  The fame his writings brought him earned him an entry in Who's Who.

Although married and with children Kilmer volunteered for service in 1917 following America's entry into World War I.  Enlisting as a private with the 7th Regiment, National Guard in New York, he sought and received a transfer shortly afterwards to 165th Infantry (part of the famed Rainbow Division).

While in training at Camp Mills Kilmer was appointed Senior Regimental Statistician and, once on the Western Front in France, he earned promotion to Sergeant and was posted to the Regimental Intelligence Staff as an observer.  In this post he would spend many dangerous nights out in No Man's Land gathering tactical information.

It was while out scouting for enemy machine guns near Ourcq that Kilmer was shot through the brain on 30 July 1918.  He was aged 31.  He was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

Kilmer's best-known poem today is Trees (reproduced below), written in 1913.  In it he demonstrated his deeply-held affinity for nature and for God.  Although he intended to write a book based on his experiences on the Western Front his early death denied him the opportunity; he nevertheless wrote numerous war poems, one of which, Prayer of a Soldier in France, is reproduced below.

A collection of Kilmer's work - Poems, Essays and Letters in Two Volumes - was published after his death in 1918.

Trees (1913)

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.

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.

An "incendiary shell" is an artillery shell packed with highly flammable material, such as magnesium and phosphorous, intended to start and spread fire when detonated.

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Prose & Poetry