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.

1 comment:

Cat said...

Quite lovely, m'dear. :D