Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, June 7, 2013

David Beer on Literature and the War

A Forgotten War Poet: Sgt. Joyce Kilmer,
165th Infantry, 42nd "Rainbow Division", AEF

Joyce Kilmer
Few people remember Joyce Kilmer. In a very random survey I asked some friends, all reasonably well educated and “of a certain age,” if they had heard of him and none had. One was sure I must be referring to a woman. All however were familiar with the lines “I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree.” This memory seems to be all that remains of an American journalist, editor, and poet who, born in 1886, enlisted in 1917 and as a sergeant in the 42nd Rainbow Division met sudden death at the Second Battle of the Marne from a sniper’s bullet through his forehead on July 30, 1918. He died by the Ourcq River, a stream in Picardy, and left behind him a wife and three children His comrades of the 42nd buried him by the side of the stream.

When Kilmer met his death at the age of 32 he was already an established writer and poet, with some 42 poems to his credit. Perhaps “Trees” was his best-known work, and it was certainly popular among ladies who liked to sing it at gatherings in their parlors, but to judge Kilmer by this rather lightweight and sentimental lyric of six couplets is to underrate a poet who also composed longer works such as “The White Ships and the Red” and “Rouge Bouquet.” The former is a long, haunting reflection on what just a week earlier had shocked the nation and helped point us towards war with Germany: the sinking of the Lusitania. For Kilmer, as for much of the nation at the time, this was an act of shocking barbarity, so shocking that the countless ships that over the centuries have sunk to the bottom—Spanish galleons, Roman triremes, and even “the grim Titanic”—look up from their resting places startled:

The ghostly vessels trembled
From ruined stern to prow;
What was this thing of terror
That broke their vigil now?
Down through the startled ocean
A mighty vessel came,
Not white, as all dead ships must be,
But red, like living flame!

Soon the Lusitania gives her lengthy answer, reinforcing the color imagery of the white ships that met their ends in expected ways and the red ship now joining them, stained by a bloody and shameful act:

"But never crashing iceberg
Nor honest shot of foe,
Nor hidden reef has sent me
The way that I must go.
My wound that stains the waters,
My blood that is like flame,
Bear witness to a loathly deed,
A deed without a name.

"I went not forth to battle,
I carried friendly men,
The children played about my decks,
The women sang – and then –
And then – the sun blushed scarlet
And Heaven hid its face,
The world that God created
Became a shameful place!

We now know that the Lusitania also carried less innocent cargo besides “friendly men” and playing children serenaded by their mothers. This was not known in May of 1915, however, and the poem effectively conveys the sense of shock and injustice the sinking caused the American people, all intensified by the aura of grief and tragedy that emanates from the ghost ships.

This article is a preview of David Beer's forthcoming article "The Forgotten War Poets" in OVER THE TOP: A MAGAZINE OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR. Email the editor for information on subscribing. (email)

The best account of Kilmer's
war experience is in
Duffy's War by Stephen Harris.
The story of the Fighting 69th in the Great War, it is possibly the finest history of an AEF unit.

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  1. I didn't know I always thought Joyce Kilmer was a woman who wrote Trees. It is a welcome surprise to find out otherwise.


  2. David, thanks for this post about Joyce Kilmer. I can tell you that, having grown up in New Jersey, I have been familiar with Kilmer since grade school. Camp Kilmer. When I was a kid, I lived about 7 miles from Camp Kilmer, which was in Piscataway. Info at

  3. Also a Jerseyite, I can tell you that there is a Rest Area on the NJ Turnpike named in honor of him.
    Thanks for another great post.

  4. Raquel HendricksonJune 19, 2013 at 7:09 PM

    The way Kilmer lived his life and fought in the war was remarkable. He was a sentimental, big-hearted man, but Father Duffy liked him because he was not a "long hair." Given his social status he could have been an officer but insisted on staying in the ranks. The Army tried hard to protect this well-known poet with tasks away from any chance at warfare and he had to push to rejoin the guys on the march. Those bloody days at the Ourcq River, he volunteered to be adjutant to Major Donovan even after his predecessor was killed. It was that post that cost him his life too. To my knowledge the photo posted with this article was the last official photo taken of Kilmer. I am so glad Mr. Beer putting new light on him and other amazing poets of the age.