America Comment

Joyce Kilmer: the ‘Apostle to Bohemia’ who died in battle

A radical socialist who became a Catholic, Joyce Kilmer died 100 years ago

Joyce Kilmer is known best as the author of a wildly popular poem – frequently mocked by the literati – called “Trees”, which contains the famous lines: “I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree”. Yet this poet, journalist and soldier was once considered the “Catholic laureate” of America. And since this year marks the centenary of Kilmer’s untimely death, age 31 at the hands of a German sniper during the closing months of World War I, it seems an ideal time to remind Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic of Kilmer’s remarkable witness to hope in a troubled age.

Kilmer was a devoted family man, the father of five children with his wife Aline, also a poet. Though raised in the Episcopal Church, Kilmer had flirted with radicalism, becoming for a time a wild-eyed socialist and atheist. (His wife recalled having to pray secretly for her husband under the bedcovers at night after he forbade her to pray.) Yet both Kilmers were drawn to the Catholic faith, and when their second child, Rose, was struck with infant paralysis, they began to receive instruction. “When faith did come,” Kilmer wrote to his Jesuit priest friend Fr James Daly, “it came, I think, by way of my little paralysed daughter. Her lifeless hands led me; I think her tiny still feet know beautiful paths.”

Joyce and Aline entered the Church in November 1913. In the intervening years, before America’s entrance into the war in April 1917, Kilmer worked tirelessly at his literary career. “I have delight chiefly in talking veiled Catholicism to non-Catholics,” he confessed to a friend, “in humbly endeavouring to be an Apostle to Bohemia.” His poetry continued to celebrate the simple pleasures of American life – Main Street, the corner deli, the commuter train, the local fishing hole – taking for its inspiration the humble Carpenter of Nazareth.

The gate clangs to – we stir – we sway –and then
We thunder through the dark. The long train weaves
Its gloomy way. At last above the eaves
We see awhile God’s day, then night again.

The Faith was at the heart of Kilmer’s decision to become a soldier. In a letter written to his wife several weeks before his death, he spoke of his commitment to the defence of France: “Here are nice old ladies, fat babies, jovial humorous men, and little girls just after making their First Communions … We men of the 69th are helping to give these people back their homes – and perhaps to prevent our homes from one day being taken from us by the same Power.”

Kilmer knew that the simple pleasures of faith and family were under constant assault, at home as well as abroad. His last public lecture was a commencement address at Campion College, a now-defunct Jesuit men’s college in Wisconsin, given just days before his deployment to France. He told the young graduates: “Some of you will go, in accordance with the traditions of Catholic manhood, to bear arms against our nation’s enemies. And, in a sense, all of you go forth to battle against our nation’s foes, although you never carry a rifle. For the forces of materialism, spiritual indifference, intolerance, cynicism, are more formidable than any blast of shell and shrapnel, more terrible than an army with banners, and against these enemies you will be called upon to fight, as no young men before you have been called upon.”

Yet Kilmer was not deflated but encouraged by the magnitude of the conflict: “By a strange paradox, the tragedy of the war seems to be producing the lovely miracle of a renascence of faith … in its hour of peril the world turns to the only true source of safety. The clear notes of the sanctus bell sound above the roar of the guns; through the smoke and dust of battle shines the sanctuary lamp; and by new and bloody paths the world comes again upon the old road to Paradise.”

We mark, in our own “hour of peril” – clerical corruption, gender confusion, and myriad assaults on the sacredness of life – the centenary of Kilmer’s death. His witness to the faith wasn’t dogmatic; his age (like ours) had glutted itself on secular dogmata. The tools of his evangelism were goodness, piety and mirth.

As a Catholic, Kilmer knew that, despite seemingly insurmountable odds, the “lost cause” must perpetually be championed. The ultimate victory has already been secured:

But for their lifetime’s passion
The quest that was fruitless and long,
They chorus their loud thanksgiving
To the thorn-crowned Master of Song.

Amy Fahey teaches at Thomas More College in New Hampshire