The Outlook (New York)/Volume 122/Joyce Kilmer, Poet and Patriot

The Outlook
Joyce Kilmer, Poet and Patriot by Katherine Brégy
1320762The Outlook — Joyce Kilmer, Poet and PatriotKatherine Brégy




JUST one year ago this July, Sergeant Joyce Kilmer was shot through the brain as he pressed ahead of his regiment, the "Fighting Sixty-Ninth," of New York, to locate German machine guns hidden in a copse beside the river Ourcq. His act won him, posthumously, the Croix de Guerre. But it won his compatriots a far greater thing—a concrete symbol of all that efficient, practical idealism which is perhaps the dearest dream of our democracy. The memory of this young poet-patriot of our latter days fathers one more legend to set beside the bright records of Rupert Brooke, of John McCrea or Charles Péguy, a legend which Americans are proud to own and will be slow to forget.

One wondered at the time if that keen sense of personal loss among the greatest variety of people—scattered youths who had known him at college, newspaper men who were in the habit of borrowing tobacco at his office in the New York "Times," priests, soldiers who had fought at his side, as well as the men and women who count in literature on both of the Atlantic—could prove the permanent, lasting judgment. For, after all, this young heroic figure had not yet reached his thirty-second birthday, and the world was struggling through one of the most momentous years in its entire history. But it has lasted. It has endured through all the stupendous issues of life and death and war and peace and reconstruction. For Joyce Kilmer was not, as sometimes happens, a poet in spite of his life, nor even a poet for whose life any excuse had to be made. He never wished, in fact, nor was able to separate his life from his poetry. That is why when the hour of national hazard fell he saw with so uncompromising a clearness the one sun-smitten path: "It is wrong for a poet to be listening to elevated trains when there are screaming shells to hear, and to be sleeping soft in a bed when there's a cot in a dugout awaiting him and the bright face of danger to dream about and see." Perhaps, also, that is why the passing of this American singer is now soberly reckoned among the great losses to literature of a war which in all the older countries was so inevitably fatal to the young, eager spirits of art. For our own country it was emphatically the greatest literary loss suffered in that brief crusade overseas.

Before those ten stressful months with our Expeditionary Forces, Joyce Kilmer had proved himself, not merely one of the foremost lyrists and most versatile newspapermen of the United States, but also a man who was helping to define the highest ideals of Americanism. He was of those who asked much of life; and, as usual, life was quick to return the compliment. Born in New Brunswick, December 6, 1886, of a family claiming English, Irish, and Scotch descent, and still, in the words of his literary executor, boasting "a Colonial Dame on both sides," Joyce lived through most phases of contemporary American thought, adding a few distinctly contributory phases of his own. He had, of course, his young romance—a quite idyllic one, which culminated in his marriage to Miss Aline Murray, a stepdaughter of Dr. Henry Mills Alden, as soon as he was graduated from Columbia University. The matter of a career which then imperiously faced him he took less as a battle to be fought than as a game to be won—a vastly interesting, delightfully intricate game, to be played always with sportsmanlike rules and usually with sportsmanlike raillery. Joyce—he was always that, and that only, to his friends—was not timid of experiments. By the time he was twenty-five he had exercised his versatilities as a Latin master, a maker of dictionaries, a poet of love's blossomy summer, a lay reader in the Episcopal Church, a hot and talkative Socialist, an all-round newspaper man, and a rather superior and sophisticated literary esthete.

From the year 1912 he began to find himself—not that so blithely responsive a nature as his could ever be described as really "settled." At this time he joined the staff of the New York "Times" and began that series of brilliant reviews and interviews which quickly revealed to American readers a new man of letters. The next spring brought one of the great sorrows of Joyce Kilmer's life, when the touch of infantile paralysis blighted the body of his little much-loved daughter, Rose. A few months later he laid forcible claim to what proved one of his most permanent joys. For it was then that he entered, with all of a convert's zeal but none of a convert's crudity, that old, old Catholic Church—so mystical at once and so practical!—to which he ever after gave a young and proud allegiance. "If what I write nowadays is considered poetry," he declared in one of his last letters written from France, "then I became a poet in November, 1913." That is to say, he became then the greatest American representative of that little band of "modern mediævalists" which on the other side of the Atlantic included the Chestertons, Hilaire Belloc, and a group of younger singers—all sworn to recapture something of the robust faith, the fine fervor, and heroic folly of Merrie England. But he was much more than this.

Popular judgment has singled out Kilmer as a poet of the ideal realities of life, and popular judgment has been, in the main, right. The ideal realities were his goal; and he showed the most astonishing verve in tracking them into unexpected corners. He celebrated (upon a wager!) the hidden glories of the delicatessen shop. He immortalized the sleepy and apologetic oommuter. He found the pathos of "The House With Nobody In It," the proud poetry of "The Snow Man in the Yard," the tender and humorous poignancy of Dave Lilly's bibulous ghost swinging his shadowy line after phantom trout. All these colloquial notes he struck with enormous felicity—and consequent popularity. He had, in fact, the most ideal reasons for keeping close to the great humble, loving heart, not merely of America, but of the whole world. He wanted to show forth the glory of the simple, universal things which he had fonnd after no little trying out of the more complex and exotic things. Myriads of poets had sung the praise of childhood, but here was one who had the courage to sing the praise of marriage and of home, the joys of daily work and daily faith in God and man. For a while, indeed, Joyce became almost radical in his ferocious conservatism.

But every one who knew his essays or his inimitable conversation must have been aware that here was a critic of broad knowledge and exuberant humor. He was far less easily satisfied than were his readers, and not at all content to remain, as many of them would have had him, merely a "familiar" or "domestic" laureate. Perhaps the first hint of that larger immortality in store for the young Kilmer was the title poem of his volume called "Trees," published in 1914. That sunny and singing lyric achieved the distinction of being almost universally memorized, and it is already accepted as one of the classics of American poetry. There were other things to warn the elect that here was a new aspirant for the Siege Perilous of high poetry—arrestingly fine things, like that vision in a brief Christmas poem which pictured the clouds rocked with song—

"As if the sky were turning bird."

Over and above this, it became suddenly evident that into the much-abused field of religious poetry Joyce Kilmer was bringing an inspired passion and—actually!—originality. A new, or rather a very ancient and almost forgotten, fragrance hung about his half-playful, half-serious songs of the star-crowned Virgin, of St. Michael, "the thorn on the rosebush of God," and of St. Valentine, whom he celebrated in a most ingenious bit of vers libre. He sang ballads, too, with the tender familiarity of the Middle Age jongleur about them, and the wistful brotherhood of our modern age. Here is a fragment from that deliciously naïve "Gates and Doors:"

"There was a gentle hostler
(And blessèd be his name!)
He opened up the stable
The night Our Lady came.
Our Lady and Saint Joseph,
He gave them food and bed,
And Jesus Christ has given him
A glory round his head.

So let the gate swing open
However poor the yard,
Lest weary people visit you
And find their passage barred;
Unlatch the door at midnight
And let your lantern's glow
Shine out to guide the traveler's feet
To you across the snow."

Joyce Kilmer was a good worker, a good player, and a good fighter at times, but his sympathy was—for a man—phenomenal. He hated scarcely anything in the world except respectable hypocrites and those decadent rhymesters, "so mildly, delicately vile," who, in his opinion, brought poetry into disrepute among honest men. For the rest he was the kindest of critics, lavish, even sumptuous of praise wherever he detected real poetic sincerity. His office at the "Times" was crowded with literary aspirants, both old and young, his desk stacked with letters seeking advice or encouragement. "No poet has any right in the world to knock the work of another poet who is honest," he once declared. And this sympathy, this broad and human idealism, was fore-ordained to spring up like a flame at the call of an outraged world. Joyce saw something of the war at first hand when in the autumn of 1914 he went to England to bring his mother safely back to the States. But it was probably not until after the Lusitania tragedy—which he commemorated in his haunting poem, "The White Ships and the Red"—that the call became personal and not to be gainsaid.

There was a gasp of surprise in literary circles when, almost immediately after the United States declared war in the spring of 1917, Joyce Kilmer be drilling with the Seventh Regiment of New York. But when a few months later he had himself transferred to the 165th Infantry (the old Sixty-ninth of New York) and sailed for France as a private because he was unwilling to lose precious time studying to be "an officer in charge of conscripts," surprise was swallowed up in the heroic and wholly Kilmerian rightness of the thing. It was not that he was a headlong enthusiast, quick on the trigger, not counting the cost. He had small opinion of "blind courage" and had just told a group of college boys that "only an enlightened man and only a good man can be brave." Over and above this he was an enormously efficient person—he had to be with that young, quickly growing family in the Larchmont home!—and at this time he was easily doing three men's work. But it was his strength, and not less his good fortune, that the business of life never drove the dream from his heart. He loved the fighting saints and the fighting poets, and years earlier he had sung the praise of that divine and healing "Folly" which our modern world was said to have forgotten:

"Lord, crash our knowledge utterly
And make on humble, simple men,
And cleansed of wisdom, let us see
Our Lady Folly's face again."

So when America started upon the supreme crusade of the twentieth century, Joyce Kilmer was willing to pay any price to claim his part in winning it. Being, as we have said, a practical idealist, he saw no other way but to resign his editorial work, cancel his lecture engagements, leave his last book of poems in press, and bid farewell to his wife, to the little children (Kenton, Deborah, Michael, and Christopher), and to the friends he knew so well how to love. It was one of the finest examples in American letters of what Henry Arthur Jones once called "the madness which keeps the world alive."

All Joyce Kilmer's life was a pressing toward the deeper seas, the more distant horizons, and in France he bad but one goal—the front. He frustrated every effort of the regimental authorities to keep him in the reasonably safe, although far from bomb-proof, duties of the statistical department, finally getting himself transferred to the intelligence section, which, as he declared, was "the most fascinating work possible." As he was on "observation" duty, it was also the most dangerous work possible, and eventually, of course, the work which cost his life. When he left New York, be had naturally expected to keep on writing from time to time, and among other things had promised a history of his own regiment. But he soon became too absorbed and shaken by the new life to think of this. He was not interested any more in writing, he wrote to his friend "Bob" Holliday, "except in so far as writing is the expression of something beautiful." And the poems among which he now lived were mostly "unwritten and undiscussed." But out of the crowded drama of his daily life there came at least four works of art. One of them was that tender and dramatic sketch of a night's billet in the home of a French peasant woman called "Holy Ireland." The other three were poems—poems of the moment, with the poignancy of heart-beats through them, yet all poems which seem likely to fulfill the soldier's wish that he might write about the great war only such things as people would want to read "a century after it is over."

Placed beside the sublimated "bluff," the careful cheerfulness, of his letters home, these verses are an inexhaustible commentary upon the real Joyce Kilmer. He lived through the cold and hunger, the almost inevitable touch of pneumonia, the long marches of that first winter of our troops in France—and out of it all came that "Prayer of a Soldier," which has the indomitable sweetness and simplicity of an early Christian martyr:

"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).

········ 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."

Then he went on duty in a dugout where a group of his young brother soldiers were suddenly killed by the explosion of a falling shell. And in their memory he wrote that song of "Rouge Bouquet," whose music was known and treasured by thousands of our "dough-boys" before ever it reached the literary critics or was declared one of the best poems of his career. And, finally, while his nights were being spent crawling through the barbed wire of No Man's Land on observation work for the Intelligence Section, the poet-patriot sent home a sonnet called the "The Peace-maker:"

"Upon his will he binds a radiant chain,
For Freedom's sake he is no longer free.
It is his task, the slave of Liberty,
With his own blood to wipe away a stain.
That pain may cease, he yields his flesh to pain.
To banish war he musts warrior be.
He dwells in Night, eternal Dawn to see,
And gladly dies, abundant life to gain."

Just a few weeks later, on the morning of July 30, 1918, Sergeant Kilmer voluntarily undertook a piece of work which he and those in command knew to mean certain death. And before nightfall his silence had sung the greatest song of all.

It is a hard thing for civilized man to live through bitter and unbelievable scenes without becoming bitter and unbelieving. The verses of many a young British soldier recently at the front—Lieutenant Nichols and his friends Siegfried Sassoon and "Bobby" Graves, for instance—have shown how hard. But Joyce Kilmer kept unshaken and unshakable that bright "sanity" and "faith" which he was always praising in the brave French people around him. He believed in very might and deed that he and the men fighting at his side were peacemakers—that "by new and bloody paths" the world was coming again "upon the old road to paradise." Up this steep road he himself charged in the vanguard. He did not lose, but gave, his life.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1967, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 56 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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