The Poetry of Joyce Kilmer: An Antidote to Cynicism
American poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) was born into this world in New Brunswick, New Jersey and born into the next world when he took a bullet at the Second Battle of the Marne. He’s most known for his ballad, “Trees.” “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.”
Verse like this gets famous fast. But it’s shark bait for critics. Kilmer’s day – the fin de siècle – was cynical. The “spirit of the age” was grotesque cynicism – a revolt against anything that might appeal to a child. Like the composer Rachmaninoff, Kilmer was often dismissed. For the record, I like both Rachmaninoff and Kilmer. But romanticism’s critics had a point. Stunted sentimentalism can create effete sensibilities, incapable of confronting or enduring evil. But cynicism is worse: it hardens the heart.
Romanticism – like romance – is important to growing up, as long as one’s doesn’t get too hung up on it. Virtue cannot be formed without sentiment. “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right deference against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments” (C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man). A poem, a painting and a song of simple, limpid style – like a nursery rhyme – is good nutrition for the young and a good antidote to cynicism. Snobbishness and hard-heartedness are moral sicknesses. They can mislead irredeemably. A cynical child is a contradiction in terms. A sentimental child is like a swimming fish – a redundant term. With that in mind, here are some summer poems, by Joyce Kilmer, for your child or your inner-child. They’re profound in their simplicity. Mocking them, like a literary critic, would be like mocking a child for smiling at a butterfly: you’d rob the child of childhood, irredeemably. Only penance could undo that damage. Kilmer’s verse simplifies the sensibilities – and heals them.
Not on the lute, nor harp of many strings,
Shall all men praise the Master of all song.
Our life is brief, one saith, and art is long;
And skilled must be the laureates of kings.
Silent, O lips that utter foolish things!
Rest, awkward fingers striking all notes wrong!
How from your toil shall issue, white and strong,
Music like that God's chosen poet sings?
There is one harp that any hand can play,
And from its strings what harmonies arise!
There is one song that any mouth can say,
A song that lingers when all singing dies.
When on their beads our Mother's children pray,
Immortal music charms the grateful skies.
The Robe of Christ
At the foot of the Cross on Calvary
Three soldiers sat and diced,
And one of them was the Devil
And he won the Robe of Christ.
When the Devil comes in his proper form
To the chamber where I dwell,
I know him and make the Sign of the Cross
Which drives him back to Hell.
And when he comes like a friendly man
And puts his hand in mine,
The fervor in his voice is not
From love or joy or wine.
And when he comes like a woman,
With lovely, smiling eyes,
Black dreams float over his golden head
Like a swarm of carrion flies.
Now many a million tortured souls
In his red halls there be:
Why does he spend his subtle craft
In hunting after me?
Kings, queens and crested warriors
Whose memory rings through time,
These are his prey, and what to him
Is this poor man of rhyme,
That he, with such laborious skill,
Should change from rôle to rôle,
Should daily act so many a part
To get my little soul?
Oh, he can be the forest,
And he can be the sun,
Or a buttercup, or an hour of rest
When the weary day is done.
I saw him through a thousand veils,
And has not this sufficed?
Now, must I look on the Devil robed
In the radiant Robe of Christ?
He comes, and his face is sad and mild,
With thorns his head is crowned;
There are great bleeding wounds in his feet,
And in each hand a wound.
How can I tell, who am a fool,
If this be Christ or no?
Those bleeding hands outstretched to me!
Those eyes that love me so!
I see the Robe—I look—I hope—
I fear—but there is one
Who will direct my troubled mind;
Christ's Mother knows her Son.
O Mother of Good Counsel, lend
Intelligence to me!
Encompass me with wisdom,
Thou Tower of Ivory!
"This is the Man of Lies," she says,
"Disguised with fearful art:
He has the wounded hands and feet,
But not the wounded heart."
Beside the Cross on Calvary
She watched them as they diced.
She saw the Devil join the game
And win the Robe of Christ.
I went to gather roses and twine them in a ring,
For I would make a posy, a posy for the King.
I got an hundred roses, the loveliest there be,
From the white rose vine and the pink rose bush
and from the red rose tree.
But when I took my posy and laid it at His feet
I found He had His roses a million times more sweet.
There was a scarlet blossom upon each foot and hand,
And a great pink rose bloomed from His side for the healing of the land.
Now of this fair and awful King there is this marvel told,
That He wears a crown of linked thorns instead of one of gold.
Where there are thorns are roses, and I saw a line of red,
A little wreath of roses around His radiant head.
A red rose is His Sacred Heart, a white rose is His face,
And His breath has turned the barren world to a rich and flowery place.
He is the Rose of Sharon, His gardener am I,
And I shall drink His fragrance in Heaven when I die.