Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree”? Just about everyone is familiar with Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” published in 1913. Kilmer was a well-known Roman Catholic poet and lecturer, often compared with G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and he achieved considerable fame before his early death as a soldier in World War I.
Born December 6, 1886, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Joyce was the youngest of four children of a physician and chemist who invented Johnson’s baby powder. His full name was Alfred Joyce Kilmer—in honor of two Episcopalian priests at the Kilmers’ church. Joyce attended Columbia University and shortly after graduation married fellow poet Aline Murray, with whom he had five children. The Kilmers converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism in 1913, when their one-year-old daughter was paralyzed by poliomyelitis and they turned for comfort to a Catholic priest.
Kilmer taught Latin for a while, then obtained work as a definition-writer for Funk & Wagnalls dictionary, for which he received five cents for each word defined. He later worked as a reviewer for The New York Times and other publications and became known as a leading poet—although even then some critics thought his work superficial and overly sentimental. The publication of “Trees” in 1913 brought him great popular fame. A lecturer who was greatly in demand as an after-dinner speaker, he had such a huge fund of knowledge that he often chose the topic of his speech only after the dinner had started, and then spoke eloquently at length without any notes.
Although he was a family man and could have avoided fighting in World War I, he enlisted in the famous “Fighting 69th” infantry regiment and was sent into the midst of battle in France. On July 18, 1918, he was serving as an aide to Major “Wild Bill” Donovan (who later founded the OSS, forerunner of the CIA). Near Meurcy Farm during the Second Battle of the Marne, Kilmer led a scouting party to rout a German machine-gun installation. He was found by his comrades at the top of a ridge, dead from a sniper’s bullet through his brain. He was thirty-one.
Kilmer was buried in Plot B, Row 9, Grave 15 in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Picardy, France. A requiem mass was celebrated for him on October, 1918, at Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A cenotaph now stands on the family plot in Elmwood Cemetery in his birthplace of New Brunswick.