Sunday, May 30, 2010

Joyce Kilmer

Memorial Day

"Dulce et decorum est"

The bugle echoes shrill and sweet,
But not of war it sings to-day.
The road is rhythmic with the feet
Of men-at-arms who come to pray.
The roses blossom white and red
On tombs where weary soldiers lie;
Flags wave above the honored dead
And martial music cleaves the sky.
Above their wreath-strewn graves we kneel,
They kept the faith and fought the fight.
Through flying lead and crimson steel
They plunged for Freedom and the Right.

May we, their grateful children, learn
Their strength, who lie beneath the sod,
Who went through fire and death to earn
At last the accolade of God.
In shining rank on rank arrayed
They march, the legions of the Lord;
He is their Captain unafraid,
The Prince of Peace . . . Who brought a sword.

At the time of his death in France during WWI, Joyce Kilmer was one of America's up and coming young talents. He wasn't exactly a household name, but his poems were well known, and well loved. Since then, his reputation has been largely overshadowed by the rest of the war poets, and he is largely - and I think, unjustly - neglected in modern collection of poetry, especially war poetry. If he is remembered at all, it is generally for his poem, Trees, which is rather unfortunate.

"Trees" is a very nice little poem. It has some lovely rhyming sequences, evocative imagery, and the typical Kilmer twist at the end, that praises God in creation, and expresses the poet's own humility. For all that, is not a very remarkable work, nor it is particularly expressive of the type of man Joyce Kilmer was. He was not a sentimentalist, except in the modern misunderstanding of the word, which confuses sentiment with idealism. He was a true poet, with a healthy touch of genuine Romanticism. He saw beauty everywhere he looked, and mystery and adventure. He expected life to be a challenge, and he met difficulties head-on, and with characteristic gusto. If his poems, particularly is earliest ones, are full of a child-like wonder and simplicity, it is not because he had not face life in all its grim reality, but because he could see beyond that reality in to the realm of Absolutes and Eternity.

Joyce Kilmer was one of those rare individuals who are truly good, but make goodness seem, not only intensely attractive, but also as the only way for a man of any worth to be. He lived enthusiastically. He loved words. He was employed to work on the Funk and Wagnalls dictionary, where his job "was to define ordinary words assigned to him at five cents for each word defined. This was a job at which one would ordinarily earn ten to twelve dollars a week, but Kilmer attacked the task with such vigor and speed that it was soon thought wisest to put him on a regular salary" He loved food, and used to claim that eating a hearty meal was compensation for lack of sleep. He seems to have been utterly imperturbable. Once, when he was in a hurry, he was knocked down by a train, and dragged for a little distance. He survived with only a few cracked ribs to show for it, and seemed to regard the whole thing as a rather comic experience, that would teach him to be more careful in the future. He was much in demand as a public speaker, but seldom prepared notes for his speeches. Sometimes, he would only decide on the topic of his speech over lunch, half an hour before he was scheduled to appear. For all that, he was a remarkably good public speaker, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Perhaps the single greatest moment in his life was when he and his wife, Aline, were received into the Catholic Church. Their daughter, Rose, had been stricken with infantile paralysis shortly after her birth, and in their distress, they turned to God. In a letter to his good friend, Fr. James Daly, he wrote, "I believed in the Catholic position, the Catholic view of ethics and aesthetics, for a long time. But I wanted something not intellectual, some conviction not mental - in fact I wanted Faith.... When faith did come, it came, I think, by way of my little paralyzed daughter. Her lifeless hands led me; I think her tiny feet know beautiful paths." From that time on, Kilmer lived the Faith to the fullest. He took the Catholicism as naturally as breathing. He developed great devotion to the saints: St. Nicholas, on whose feast day he was born, the Irish saints, Patrick and Bridgit, no doubt because of his affinity will all things Irish, the warrior saint, Michael, and Joan of Arc, because his spiritual out look was very much that of a soldier. His over-riding desire was to live in such a way as to be worthy of that gift of Faith, that he had prayed so hard for, and to give glory to God in the best way he knew: by his writing.

He was a prolific writer, regularly turning out criticism, plays, essays, and short stories. His wartime story Holy Ireland is one of the finest things he ever wrote. But it is for his poems that he is best remembered. His early poems were very pleasant reading, it not particularly earth shattering. They all show, however, Kilmer's distinctive ability to find inspiration in almost everything, from a commuter train to an abandoned house. His best poems were written after his conversion, and the best of all were the ones he wrote as a soldier in France

He volunteered for service as soon as the United States declared war. He liked to boast that he was "half Irish" so it was the predominantly Irish "Fighting 69th" that he joined. He rose to the rank of Sargent, and could have got a commission, but refused to, because he would rather have been a Sargent of the 69th than an officer in any other regiment. He wrote to Aline that he intended to write a book about the experience, which he decided to call, "Here and There With the Fighting Sixty-Ninth". He had great ambitions for the book, declaring that it would be "a most charming book... the sort of book I'd greatly like to read.... no glib tale, no newspaper man's work - but with God's help, a work of art." He never did get to write that book, but he wrote several extremely fine poems, for which he ought to have been remembered: The Rouge Bouquet, The Peacemaker, and The Prayer of a Soldier in France. They are the work of an accomplished poet, as well as a deeply spiritually patriot.

Joyce Kilmer was killed in action on July 30, 1918, by a sniper's bullet, while on a reconnaissance mission in No Man's Land. He is buried in France, and was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Republic.

Peace to each manly soul that sleepeth;
Rest to each faithful eye that weepeth..

.~Thomas Moore

Requiem æternam dona eis, DomineRequiem æternam dona eis, Domine

Happy Memorial Day to all of you.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Spring Snow

This is what I saw outside my window when I woke up this morning:

My neck of the woods is having a cool, wet spring. I think I am the only person left who is still delighted every time it snows, which it has been doing every few days for weeks now. You'd think I would be used to it, but I am not. I keep taking those warm days of false spring between cold fronts for the real thing, so each little snow storm takes me by surprise.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Soldier's Rosary

At the beginning of "The Lord of the Rings" Tolkien mentions that hobbits' homes tend to get cluttered up with mathoms - a lovely word he took from the Old English, meaning something precious, a treasure. This tendency of the hobbits is one of a goodly number of things about them that reminds me very much of myself. I am much given to the acquiring and collecting of things. Some of my things are very ordinary things. Books, of course. I do not have a bedroom so much as a library in disguise; music as well, and a shocking amount of bric-a-brack acquired, hobbit-like over the years, from friends and family, and of which I am very fond. Some of my things might seem rather odd at first glance: cap badges, for example, or metal soldiers. But I have everything neatly arranged so that I mostly manage to avoid clutter, while still being able to enjoy my possessions.
My most recently acquired mathom is this. It is a soldier's rosary from WWII.

I came across across a picture of one on the Internet about a month or so ago, when I was looking for something else entirely, and was terribly intrigued by it. So I did a bit of research, and discovered that it is hard to find out very much about them at all. They were made during the First and Second World Wars, and are generally referred to as 'standard issue'. They are made of brass pull chain, and while the crucifixes can vary considerably, the overwhelming majority of them have identical center medals, stamped with an image of the Sorrowful Mother on the front, and Our Lord carrying His cross on the back. (Mine has that medal, though you can't really see it in the picture.) Sometimes, they would have been plated in silver, but most were plain, and looked just like this one. I decided that I would dearly like to have one for my very own.
Much to my surprise, I discovered several of them on ebay. To my further surprise, and breathless delight, I actually managed to place a winning bid on one, within the budget I prudently set for myself. It came in the mail a few days later, and I have been saying my daily prayers on it ever since.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
-- Every nighte and alle,
Fire and sleet and candle-lighte,
-- And Christe receive thy saule…

I have been fascinated with the old Yorkshire poem, “The Lyke Wake Dirge” since I first came across it years ago in an anthology of old ballads. It is a dark poem, yet strangely hopeful, much like the Dies Irae. It is full of direful warnings, but the bleakness of its verse is relieved by the refrain, “And Christe receive thy saule.” I read it, and the meter, with its driving refrain, got into my blood. The old Yorkshire dialect of it got caught in my brain, and went round and round like a catchy song. I immediately copied it down for myself, being a compulsive collector of verse and prose. Not too long ago, I did a bit of research on the “Lyke Wake Dirge” as I had – and have still - a wholly unrealised ambition to write a morality tale (rather along the lines of “A Christmas Carol”) based on it. I discovered that there are actually several version of the ballad, and that the rather apocalyptical lines, “fire and sleet and candle-light” might not be that at all. Numerous sources gave it as, “fire and fleet and candle-light”, fleet in this case being a very old word for a large room in the house and related to the word ‘flet’ meaning floor. In short, with the change of one small letter, the whole line turned from bleakly atmospheric, to praising the comforts of home, rather along the lines of ‘hearth and home’. (I am something of a word collector, as well as a poem collector, so this little bit of trivia delighted me absurdly.) I liked the phrase tremendously. It was comfortable and home-like. I filed it away in my mind, determined to work the sleet/fleet change into my story. Only, the story has yet to be written, and I forgot about “The Lyke Wake Dirge” for the while.

When I decided to start a blog, I knew that I wanted a rather comfortable and home-like title. I kicked about names for weeks on end, trying to find one that suited me. Most of them were rather too coffee-shop-ish to work, so I came back to an old, old phrase meaning all the comforts of home – and wrote this self important essay to explain the title! So now that I have explained it, at least to my own satisfaction, I hope you will all stop in once in a while, and close with the pious wish, ‘And Christe receive thy saule…’