Who Was the Man Behind Joyce Kilmer's Tree?
© 2008 by Edward Kotski, All Rights Reserved
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Would you like to be famous? One road to fame is to write a famous poem, perhaps with help from a famous ghost writer, or, even better, with help from a famous ghost. This is the story of a dead man, a poet, and a tree, who together came up with one of the most famous poems of all time.
A poem implies a poet and ours was baptized Alfred, but because he, like his contemporary Joe Kipling, preferred his middle name, we know him as Joyce. His poem is Trees, and if by sad chance you're not familiar with it, your life is an empty shell.
Joyce Kilmer wrote a memorable poem, but what makes us remember it? It has the right words and the right structure and it's based on a great idea, but is that enough? It's a good start, but you might add a few more things: Keep it short; Use vivid imagery; and, if you trust Saint Jerome, make it easy to read. You should also know the poet's closely guarded secret: tell an old truth in a new way. Our poet did all of this and what did he get? Trees.
Trees caught the public's imagination at once, and has kept it ever since, even though the critics didn't approve then and don't approve now. The poem's biggest drawback seems to be that the public likes it, which is not a common flaw in poetry, but common or not, the experts consider it fatal.
Nonetheless, Tree's success was inevitable once Kilmer had his idea. Words were his stock in trade and he was a master at making them dance. The big question is, where did he get his idea? Why did he write about a tree?
The answer might surprise you. In fact, he didn't write about "a" tree at all - he wrote about "the" tree. That one, right there.
New Jersey used to push the "Kilmer Oak" as his inspiration, although most people of culture (e.g. New Yorkers) never bought into it. At any rate, like much of the Garden State's vegetation, it's been chopped down, and besides, Kilmer's tree is a lady.
We have an oak in our backyard, and it's a barbarian. It cheers the squirrels on when they raid our bird feeder, the squirrels make the dogs bark, the barking annoys my wife, and, well you get the picture. Neither would our oak ever be caught praying, least of all to Joyce Kilmer's God. So where did Kilmer find his muse? Let's start with when.
1886 was a good year for Joyce Kilmer. That's when he was born, but more to the point, it's the year in which one of the nation's leading magazines published J. Horace Lacy's Civil War recollections.
Major Lacy and a friend were looking across the distance at Chatham, which had been Lacy's Virginia estate before it was taken over by the Yankees. As if to stick a finger in Lacy's eye, his uninvited guests were just then hosting an elaborate party, complete with finely dressed ladies and bands playing Yankee Doodle. More dutifully than enthusiastically, Lacy suggested putting an end to their festivities by shelling the place with heavy artillery, even though it would destroy his home in the process. His friend disagreed and told Lacy how much he himself loved Chatham, and went on to say that he, with two others, had been observing the estate a few days earlier, watching the invaders chop down its beautiful trees.
Among the trees remaining, one stood out. Lacy's friend was ordinarily a man of few words, but the great tree had overcome his natural reserve and made him unusually eloquent.
Here, according to Lacy, are his friend's exact words:
I saw that a magnificent tulip poplar at the head of the ravine, north of the house, was still standing, and, with somewhat of your rhetoric, I said to Venable and Taylor:There is nothing in vegetable nature so grand as a tree. Grappling with its roots the granite foundations of the everlasting hills, it reaches its sturdy and gnarled trunk on high, spreads its branches to the heavens, casts its shadow on the sward, and the birds build their nests and sing amid its umbrageous foliage.
And that, dear reader, as they used to say, is how Joyce Kilmer got his best idea ever, or as he might have put it on an off day, poems are made by fools like me, with a little help from Robert E Lee.
If you find this a hard sell, I can't blame you. Trees has been around for almost a hundred years, and Lee's words even longer, but no one seems to have made the connection. Still, consider the following: Lee's description of Lacy's tree matches Kilmer's in the tree's uniqueness; its roots nursing at the earth; its branches reaching out in prayer; birds building nests in its hair. For the more mathematically inclined, not only are Lee's and Kilmer's images the same, but both descriptions follow the same order. The probability of all this happening by coincidence is very, very low, and though I wouldn't ordinarily bring in mathematics, it does tend to scare off crackpot skeptics just as effectively as shaking a rattle. And so, as we expositors like to say, QED, and neither Lee nor Kilmer would have to look that up. O tempora, O mores.
Trees was first published in 1913, in a magazine called, appropriately, Poetry, and despite carping from detractors, a robin's nest still sways in the breeze (although these days the praying thing could be a bit problematic).
Kilmer's tree seems to be a symbol of peace, but his lovely little poem had its origin in one of the bloodiest wars of the nineteenth century, and war binds together the poem, the poet, and the helper. Lee has always been associated with war. He was born remarkable but it was war that made him great. He earned his reputation in Mexico with his reconnaissance skills and his bravery, and the Civil War made him a legend. Kilmer was a good poet, and Trees is a good poem, but it was Kilmer's death in World War I that made both the poet and his poem immortal, and it was his own reconnaissance skills and bravery that led him to his fate.
The Lee anecdote is from "Lee at Fredericksburg" in the August 1886 issue of The Century Magazine, Volume XXXII, Number 4, and is also excerpted as The Trees of Chatham in B.A. Botkin's A Civil War Treasury of Tales, Legends and Folklore, where I first saw it. The full Century article contains more of Lacy's recollections, unrelated but fascinating, and includes not only a description of The Tree's demise, but also a wonderful description of the wartime behavior of farm animals.
I didn't want to fall into the Piltdown trap, so I hunted down a photocopy of the original Century piece. It's available through Cornell University's Making of America collection . I can't vouch for Lacy's recall of Lee's exact words, but Lee's or Lacy's, the words are there.
As for the Poem itself, it helps to know that in the early 1900's (and perhaps still today) working poets pronounced the P word with two syllables, po-em, which explains the otherwise dysrhythmic second line and the sometimes remedial "as". I found this syllablic tidbit in the autobiography of another, at least occasional, poet, Albert Payson Terhune, who was one of the most well known writers of what should have been Kilmer's maturity. Terhune did not die in battle, and today he is largely forgotten.
Finally, as we all know, good things, like the bad, most often come in three's. In addition to discovering Robert E. Lee's contribution to literature, I found two direct connections between me, and if not to the poet himself, at least to his father, Frederick. Kilmer senior at one time lived just over the county line in Binghamton, N.Y., and he invented Johnson's Baby Powder.
by Joyce Kilmer 1886-1918
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.
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