Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Kilmer's Promotion of Poe

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Kilmer's Promotion of Poe

Article excerpt

Until a few decades ago, almost every high school graduate in America knew Joyce Kilmer's poem, "Trees" - the popular, twelve-line poem in which the author disparages himself as a creator vis-à-vis God's superior creativity. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become almost a cliché in aesthetics and in criticism to talk about the superior constructions of God by contrast with those of man. Perhaps shifts in critical taste and in school curricula may require providing the text for some readers:


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.

(For Mrs. Henry Mills Alden, written February 2, 1913)

Joyce Kilmer lived in the village of Larchmont for two years prior to his untimely death on 30 July 1918. He was killed by a sniper's bullet at the age of 31, while serving in France during World War I. Posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for exemplary service by the French command, Kilmer was the first American literary figure killed in the war.

Before Kilmer entered World War I, he had developed a reputation as a very talented, agreeable young fellow. His many published books included: A Summer of Love (1911); Trees and Other Poems (1914); The Circus and Other Essays (1916); Main Street and Other Poems (1917); Literature in the Making by Some of Its Makers (1917); and Dreams and Images: An Anthology of Catholic Poets (1917). In addition, he had written many articles for both newspapers and magazines and had given lectures and interviews throughout the Northeast and the Midwest. Even during his seven months at the front in France, he was writing and reciting and sending literary observations and thoughts, often in poetry, to the military publication, The Stars and Stripes.

After his death, his reputation only grew, in part because many of his short poems were set to music, especially "Trees." The most famous musical version of "Trees" is Oscar Rasbach's, composed in 1922. It was popularized by some of the most noted singers of the day, including Nelson Eddy, Paul Robeson and Robert Merrill.1

The importance of Joyce Kilmer, as poet, lecturer, essayist, general "literatus" in New York City is only a rare or faint memory today in readers without a specialized knowledge of his short life (6 December 1886-30 July 1918). Shifts in popular tastes toward poetry devoid of moralistic, didactic, and devotional aims are probably responsible for the decline.2 To avoid offering reams of factual data about a life lived to the creative and active hilt, I rely upon data presented by the summary in his Who's Who in America biography (achieved at twenty-five years of age), printed in the 1914-1915 issue and slightly expanded for new issues in 1916 and 1918-1919.3

Kilmer's great respect for Poe's literary achievements and widespread influence is indicated in the following series of excerpts from sixteen of his full page interviews and occasional essays culled from about 150 issues of the book review section of the New York Times from 1913 to 1917.4 He surely knew how deleterious for seventy-five years were the canards against Poe's character and behavior contrived and included by the inimical Rufus W. Griswold. He had managed to become "editor" of the four volumes of Poe's works published from 1850 to 1856 - through his vain promises about donating royalties to Poe's penniless aunt-mother-in-law.5 A large cache of evidentiary material on Poe and others, promoted and recorded by Kilmer, previously unknown and unexamined, was recently made available to me. It comprises the material here being sorted, condensed, and presented for consideration. …

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