Joyce Kilmer, circa 1918.
Born: 6 December 1886
New Brunswick, New Jersey United States of America
Died: 30 July 1918
near Seringes, France
Occupation(s): Poet and writer
Alfred Joyce Kilmer (6 December 1886 in New Brunswick, New Jersey (USA) – 30 July 1918 near Seringes, France) was an American journalist and poet; his best-known work is a poem entitled "Trees" (1913) which was first published in a collection entitled Trees and Other Poems in 1914.
Kilmer was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the son of Annie Ellen Kilburn (1849-1932) and Dr. Frederick Barnett Kilmer (1851-1934), a physician and chemist employed by the Johnson and Johnson Company and inventor of the company's famed Baby Powder. He was named Alfred Joyce Kilmer after the Rev. Drs. Alfred Stowe and Elisha Brooks Joyce, two rectors of Christ Church, the oldest episcopal parish in New Brunswick, where the Kilmer family were parishioners. Rector Joyce, who served the parish from 1883 to 1916, (Stowe served from 1839 to 1883) baptised the young Kilmer. Kilmer would later convert from the Anglican church to Roman Catholicism in 1913.
His birthplace in New Brunswick, where the Kilmer family lived from 1886 to 1892, is still standing, housing a small museum to Kilmer, and a few Middlesex County government offices.
After attending and graduating from the Rutgers College Grammar School (now Rutgers Preparatory School) in 1904, he continued his education at Rutgers College from 1904 to 1906. Unable to complete the rigorous mathematics requirement in the curriculum at Rutgers, Kilmer transferred to Columbia University in New York City, completing his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1908. Shortly after graduation, on 9 June 1908, he married Aline Murray (1888-1941) a fellow poet, and had five children: Kenton Sinclair Kilmer (1909-1995), Michael Barry Kilmer (1916-1927), Deborah ("Sister Michael") Clanton Kilmer (1914-1999), Rose Kilburn Kilmer (1912-1917), and Christopher Kilmer (1917-1984).
From 1909 to 1912, he worked on the staff of "The Standard Dictionary" published by Funk and Wagnalls and became a special writer for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He then moved to Mahwah, New Jersey, where he resided until his service and death in World War I.
Kilmer enlisted in the United States Army in April 1917, and quickly rose to the rank of Sergeant in the 69th Volunteer Infantry Regiment (better known as the "Fighting 69th" and later redesignated the 165th Infantry Regiment), of the 42nd "Rainbow" Division. Originally a statistician, Kilmer was assigned duty as an Intelligence observer, requiring patrols deep behind enemy lines to gather information about the enemy. At the Second Battle of Marne, during one mission at Muercy Farm, beside the Oureq River near the village of Seringes, in France, Kilmer was killed in action by a sniper on 30 July 1918 at the age of 31. For his valour, Kilmer was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) by the French Republic.
Kilmer was buried in the Oise-Aisne Cemetery, Fere-en-Tardenois, France. Although Kilmer is buried in France in an American military cemetery, a cenotaph is located on the Kilmer family plot in Elmwood Cemetery, in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Joyce Kilmer is chiefly known for a poem entitled "Trees" first published in a book entitled Trees and Other Poems (1914). The poem is believed to have been written in 1913, while Kilmer was in Chicago. Other sources, however, state it was written on 2 February 1913, in Mahwah, New Jersey
The poem is notable for its anthropomorphism: the tree in the poem presses its mouth to the earth's breast and looks at God and raises its leafy arms to pray. The poem was given a musical setting that was quite popular in the 1940s and 1950s.
Local tradition in New Brunswick, New Jersey, states that Kilmer wrote the poem "Trees" after a large white oak (Quercus alba) tree that was located on the outskirts of town on the campus of Cook College (the School of Agriculture), at Rutgers University. This tree, several hundred years old, fell down after being struck by lightning in the 1990s. Currently, sapplings grown from acorns of the historic tree are being grown at the site, throughout the Middlesex County area, and in major arborteums around the United States. The remains of the original Kilmer Oak are currently kept in storage at Cook College, Rutgers University.
Another tradition, though unsubstantiated, is that the location of the Kilmer home on a wooded hill in Mahwah, New Jersey inspired the poem.
- I think that I shall never see
- A poem lovely as a tree.
- A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
- Against the sweet earth's 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.
- Summer of Love (1911)
- Trees and Other Poems (New York: Doubleday Doran and Co., 1914).
- Main Street and Other Poems (New York: George H. Doran, 1917).
- Literature in the Making by some of its Makers (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1917).
- Poems, Essays and Letters in Two Volumes (Volume One: Memoir and Poems, Volume Two: Prose Works) (New York: George H. Doran, 1918 - published posthumously).
- The Circus and Other Essays and Fugitive Pieces (New York: George H. Doran, 1921 - published posthumously).
Notable places and things named for Kilmer
Several municipalities across the United States have named parks, schools and streets in honour of Joyce Kilmer, including his hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, which renamed the street on which he was born "Joyce Kilmer Avenue."
- Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest (3,800 acres/15kmē) located in the Nantahala National Forest, near Robbinsville in Graham County, North Carolina. Dedicated in Kilmer's memory on 10 July 1936.
- Camp Kilmer, opened in 1942 in what is now Edison, New Jersey, an embarcation center for soldiers going to the European theatre during World War II. Many of the original buildings remain, and it is now the location of the Livingston campus of Rutgers University where a library is named after him.
- The State of New Jersey and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority have named a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike, located in East Brunswick Township after him.
- The Philolexian Society of Columbia University, a collegiate literary society of which Kilmer was Vice President, holds the annual Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest in his honor.
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