.By Alex Michelini
MAHWAH, NJ — Joyce Kilmer is probably smiling down on Mahwah, New Jersey.
Mayor Bill Laforet issued a proclamation declaring February 2 now and hereafter as Joyce Kilmer Day after research by the Mahwah Historic Preservation Commission showed Kilmer wrote “Trees” 100 years ago in his Mahwah, NJ home on February 2, 1913.
The proclamation was placed in the Mahwah Public Library at ceremonies attended by townspeople and dignitaries including Councilmen John Roth and John Speich. An exhibit on Kilmer’s life also was put on display, and additional commemorative events also were expected later this year.
It was on a winter’s day in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains that Kilmer, still in his 20s, sat at his desk in an upstairs bedroom/office of his home at the corner of Airmount and Armour Roads and put the finishing touches on a composition that would be known loved around the world.
Trees” was first published in Poetry Magazine in August, 1913 and over almost a century, millions of school children have learned it by heart, it has been revered by arborists, set to music, translated into many foreign languages – and the object of claims by places across the country proudly asserting it was one of their trees that inspired Kilmer to write the poem.
Even a University of Notre Dame brochure described how a visiting Kilmer received his inspiration from “a big tree” shading the Virgin Mary in a grotto at the school.
But only Mahwah established that it and it alone was the location where Kilmer wrote “Trees” and he did it 100 years ago.
The 12-line poem has become so universally popular that it ranks high on M.H. Forsyth’s list of 50 “Most Quoted Lines of Poetry,” as measured by the number of Google reads on the Internet – No. 26 with 1,080,000 reads.
This total surpassed those of major works by literary giants such as T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Sam Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Rudyard Kipling, and evensome by the Bard of Avon.
But Kilmer, who catapulted to international fame with “Trees,” was far more than a poet. In his relatively short life of 31 years, he became an accomplished literary critic and lecturer, a versatile journalist, the leading American laureate of the Catholic Church of his generation and a patriot in the Great War.
Kilmer’s eldest child, Kenton, said” Trees” was written the year after Kilmer built a home for his growing family –Joyce, wife Aline, son Kenton and daughter Rosamonde (Rose), born in 1912 and diagnosed with polio in their Mahwah house – in the fledgling Cragmere Park community in Mahwah.
They had moved from New York where Kilmer worked early in his writing career.
“We are living in Mahwah now,” Kilmer wrote his mother, Annie Kilburn Kilmer, on June 25, 1912. “The floor and woodwork are not yet stained, and there is no electric light as yet, but otherwise we are very comfortable.”
Son Kenton, who died in 1995, said he had the notebook in which “Trees” was written and dated. “Trees was written at his home in Mahwah, New Jersey on February 2, 1913, “Dorothy V. Corson, author of “The Spirit of Notre Dame, History, Legends and Lore,” said Kenton told her in an interview.
Corson added: “It was written in the afternoon in the intervals of some other writing. The desk was in an upstairs room, by a window looking down a wooded hill. It was written in a little notebook in which his father (Joyce) and mother (Aline, also a poet) wrote out copies of several of their poems, and in most cases added the date of composition.
“On one page the first two lines of‘Trees’ appear, with the date, February 2, 1913, and on another page, further on in the book, is the full text of the poem.” Kenton wrote in his own book, “Memories of My Father, Joyce Kilmer,” that the upstairs room was his parents’ bedroom which also served as Joyce’s office.
He said “the window looked out down a hill, on our well-wooded lawn – trees of many kinds, from mature trees to thin saplings: oaks, maples, black and white birches and I don’t know what else.” Joyce Kilmer’s daughter, Deborah, a Benedictine nun known as “Sister Michael” who also was a poet and passed away in 1999, said it was also her understanding “Trees” was written in their New Jersey home, according to author Corson.
Kenton said he had a letter by his mother explaining the origin of the poem, and that they both agreed that Joyce never meant it to apply to one particular tree or to the trees of any special region.
Several months after writing the poem, Kilmer informed his mother in a May 4, 1913 letter that “Trees” would probably appear in Poetry magazine – and, in fact, it did in August of that year.
He also took time to revel in the colors around his Mahwah home. “It is very nice out here in the spring,” he wrote.
“There are large numbers of violets, ranging in color from deep blue almost to red, and some of them are striped light blue and white. Also there is an admirable dog-wood tree near the house, and we have planted several vines.”
While “Trees” is his most notable poem, Kilmer also wrote others from his Mahwah home – including one that embodied his experience regularly walking on Franklin Turnpike to the Erie Railroad station across the state border in Suffern, NY, to catch a train to work in the city.
Those trips past an empty farmhouse led to the sad and poignant “The House With Nobody in It.”
Kilmer’s morning ritual, according to Kenton, consisted of the walk to Suffern, mass and communion in the church there and boarding a train. A trip on August 2, 1916, proved to be painful.
As he ran to board a moving train, Kilmer was struck and dragged, and suffered three fractured ribs. Convalescing at Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, he attributed his escape from death to receiving “the Blessed Sacrament” an hour before the accident, since several men were previously killed at the same location when trains hurled them forward and under the wheels. Kilmer survived, he said, when he was thrown to the side.
On another occasion, Kilmer smoked his pipe while awaiting for a Suffern train, then stuffed it into his pocket when the train arrived.
“Of course, the jacket caught fire, and there was quite a commotion on the train til it was put out,” said Kenton, who added his mother recalled the jacket was “beyond repair.”
The Kilmer family lived in the Cragmere house between 1912 and 1917, when it moved to a rented house on what is now Maple Street in Larchmont, NY and later moved to another house on Walnut Street there before he sailed as a solder to France.
Joyce and his wife bought the Mahwah lot in 1911 and began planning construction that summer. He wrote his mother he would name the dwelling “Nine Bean Rows,” from William Butler Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” But when his friends were unfamiliar with the poem, he dropped the idea.
“There is a possibility that in your room (during visits) at Cragmere there will be a stationary wash-basin with hot and cold water!” he told his mother. “There are to be built-in bookcases, two open fireplaces, a dining porch and a sleeping porch. There is a spring on the grounds, and there are mountains all around.”
And, like their neighbors, the Kilmers endured the travails and cherished the treasures of life in the country amid the Ramapo Mountains.
His son, Kenton, recalled Joyce’s futile attempt to launch a kite that crashed into pieces near the house; his parents taking him on his Flexible Flyer one winter day to shop in a general store on Franklin Turnpike and how they later had to thaw him out in a cold shower; the days his father, clad in Levis and a checkered flannel shirt, eagerly went out to either fish in the Ramapo River or simply walk in the mountains; how his father cleaned up the yard by trimming branches from trees and bushes and lugging stones to create a free-standing wall on the hill side of the house; and the time Joyce and a worker dug a drain to keep surface water from running into the cellar.
“The mountains about here are very interesting,” Joyce wrote his mother. “Recently, I climbed two of them with my friend. We found on Mt. Houvenkopf an old artist and wife, the only white people for many miles. The natives live in log cabins and are called Jackson Whites.There is a fine view from the mountains, and the valley between them is full of wild honeysuckle.”
Inspired by his walks up the 925-foot mountain near Stagg Hill Road, Kilmer penned a poem in 1914 entitled “Mount Houvenkopf” that began: “Serene he stands, with mist serenely crowned.”
For a long time, the Kilmers wanted a sun dial, and they decided to buy one for the Mahwah house. They would place it either on a post in the front yard or fasten it “to a great boulder that is already there,” he wrote. However, there is no clear evidence they followed through with their plans, but the boulder remains there to this day with a 1952 memorial plaque from the Mahwah Garden Club affixed to the huge rock.
A few days after the United States entered World War I in April, 1917, Kilmer enlisted in the New York National Guard.
By mid-year, he moved his family to Larchmont, NY which poet Phyllis McGinley, who became a Larchmont resident and would write that it was a place where “all the streets were named for trees”(actually, in a stretch of a streets, about 15 of 52 bear tree names). It was said that Kilmer moved to New York to be closer to his National Guard training facilities.
The year 1917 was filled with pain and joy for the Kilmers. Youngest daughter Rose had been diagnosed with polio nine months after her 1912 birth, and Kilmer always clung to hope she would recover.
“She seems to be steadily gaining strength in her arms and can lift one hand to her mouth and feed herself when she is lying down,” Kilmer wrote to his mother on July 1, 1914. But she died in September, 1917 at the age of five and another son, Christopher, was born 12 days later. Soon afterward, Joyce departed for France. The following July he was dead, killed in action.
There were then four Kilmers left – Aline, Kenton, Deborah and Christopher, who died at age 11.
Kilmer was brought up Episcopalian (or Anglican) but spent his early youth as an athiest and fervent Socialist, according to grand-daughter Miriam Kilmer of Alexandria, VA. He later began gravitating to the Catholic Church, and after baby Rose’s polio diagnosis, he and his wife converted to Catholicism on November 5, 1913 – “not out of theological study; it was out of faith,” wrote researcher/author John Covell in Catholic Men’s Quarterly.
Kilmer was born “Alfred Joyce Kilmer”on December 6, 1886 on Codwise Avenue, later renamed Joyce Kilmer Avenue, in New Brunswick, NJ, in a house that now contains a small museum. According to author Holliday in a 1918 Kilmer biography, “Alfred” disappeared from Kilmer’s byline soon after he began getting published.
His father, Frederick Barnett Kilmer, whose family descended from Palatine immigrants who settled in Livingston Manor in upstate New York in 1711, was a pharmacist who, as scientific director of Johnson & Johnson’s, led the development of the company’s famous baby powder, according to J & J historians.
Joyce proclaimed himself “half Irish,”and son Kenton said there were Irish-sounding names on the maternal side of the family like Smith and Curtis. But no clear evidence of him actually being Irish.
Holliday, who served as Kilmer’s literary executor, said Kilmer liked “all things Irish,” including Irish fairies, the poor Irish who went to Catholic Church, and of all solders, he liked Irish soldiers best, and he counted among his friends Irish patriots, poets and clergy.
Grand-daughter Miriam said Joyce Kilmer’s father was mostly German and English and his mother mostly English.
“He was Irish by adoption,” she said. But Joyce’s wife, Aline, was indisputably Irish-American, according to Kenton.
Math confounded Kilmer at Rutgers and, faced with the prospect of having to repeat his sophomore year, transferred to and graduated from Columbia University. He then taught Latin at Morristown, NJ, High School before winding his way through a variety of jobs, literary in nature. These included editor of a journal for horsemen, retail sales clerk at Charles Scribner Sons book store, editorial assistant at Fund & Wagnall; book reviewer for the New York Post; free-lance book reviewer for Literary Digest, Town & Country, The Nation and The New York Times, literary editor of “The Churchman” Anglican newspaper, poetry editor of Current Literature magazine and contributing editor of Warner’s Library of the World’s Best Literature.
And eventually, reaching his zenith writing for The New York Times Sunday Magazine.
The sinking of the Lusitania and the U.S. entry into World War I prompted him to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1917. Heeschewed a cushy assignment to become a sergeant in the famous Fighting 69th and engaged in more hazardous duty in the Intelligence section in 1918.
“Joyce Kilmer met his end in the heroic performance of his duty,” fellow soldier Sgt. Maj. Lemist Esler told The New York Times.
On July 30, 1918 during the Second Battle of the Marne in the forests of France, Kilmer was dispatched at the head of a patrol to pinpoint the location of German machine guns bunched in the woods beside the Oureq River near the village of Seringes.
“I lost sight of Kilmer, and a couple of hours later the battalion advanced into the woods to clear the spot of the enemy,” recalled Esler, a Harvard graduate. “I suddenly caught sight of Kilmer lying on his stomach on a bit of sloping ground, his eyes just peering over the top of what appeared to be a natural trench.
“We called to him, but received no answer. Then I ran up and turned him on his back, only to find that he was dead with a bullet through his brain.”
Kilmer was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial, and posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Republic. A memorial service was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and a cenotaph (empty tomb/monument) erected at his family plot in Elmwood Cemetery in New Brunswick.
In the years before and after his death, Kilmer enjoyed widespread praise. Referring to “Trees,” Katherine Brege, author of “The Pet’s Chantry,” wrote in 1918:
“That sunny and singing lyric achieved the distinction of being almost universally memorized and it is already acclaimed as one of the classics of American poetry.”
But some critics later said that over the years, Kilmer’s style of writing fell out of favor as poetry moved away from his traditional style of the Romantic era, and “Trees” was sometimes panned as too sentimental and simple. The Philolexian Society, a Columbia University student organization that Kilmer once served as vice president, annually conducts the humorous Alfred Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest.
A bittersweet assessment in “The Outlook” weekly current events magazine of September 4, 1918 observed Kilmer was “in no sense a great poet.”
“The greater part of his two or three slender volumes not poetry at all, as he, who was a keen and just critic, would be the first to admit. It is verse of charm and tenderness and whim, now humorous, now devotional, always sincere, sane, wholesome, vigorous, courageous,” the magazine edited by Alfred Emanual Smith wrote.
The works revealed “a man one would have loved to know,” the article said, and referring to “Trees,” added:
“He looked at a tree and made a great discovery, and no one who has read the poem that Joyce Kilmer made in celebration will ever look in wonder at a tree again without remembering what Kilmer said of it and of its brethren.”
Like the multitude of branched brethren in the 3,840-acre Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest established in 1936 near Robbinsville, NC, and now part of the larger Slick Rock Wilderness Area straddling the borders of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
It may be the largest Kilmer tribute, but it is far from the only one. There is a Joyce Kilmer tree and plaque at 67th Street in New York’s Central Park; and Joyce Kilmer Park on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium; and Joyce Kilmer Square on Kings Highway and Quentin Road in Brooklyn. And Kilmer Triangle in Rogers Park, Chicago; and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Fireplace in Como Park, St. Paul,
Over the years, Mahwah has taken more than its share of bad-mouthing by outsiders, usually city slickers who think anyone living on what were once farms must be hicks. And there’s also the matter of the town’s name.
Mail sorters, it was said, were known to scratch their heads when letters addressed to Mahwah turned up – and then to scratch out Mahwah and re-direct the letters to places like Rahway or Mohawk. In 1949, some feisty Mahwah business people finally decided enough was enough, and took out an ad in The New York Times. And who did they spotlight for the town’s claim to fame? The man of the house who used to live at the corner of Airmount and Armour Roads.
Mahwah – spelled M-A-H-W-A-H, proclaimed the ad. From the Indian, Maa Ewahy meaning “meeting place.” And for those who didn’t know it, the ad continued: “Mahwah is noted for beautiful trees –elms and tulips. And speaking of trees, one of our former residents cut quite a niche for himself writing about trees. This young man was Joyce Kilmer. So we ask you what do Azusa and Cucamonga have that we don’t have?”