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Alfred Joyce Kilmer, Catholic Poet of "Trees" - Conversion Story and Selected Catholic Poems

Have you heard of the Catholic poet, Joyce Kilmer? 

First off, despite his name, Alfred Joyce Kilmer was a man. Second, he was a Catholic convert, along with the rest of his family. Kilmer described his conversion beautifully. See below. 

Kilmer was probably most famous for his poem, "Trees" --  "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree."

There's a definite ecological/environmental beauty to "Trees," so this poem often gets promoted over Kilmer's more explicitly Catholic poems. I think it's time to showcase some of Kilmer's beautiful Catholic poetry and writing ...   

Joyce Kilmer, Catholic Poetry - Table of Contents

    Joyce Kilmer's Catholic Conversion

    Joyce and his wife Aline Murray (also an author) had five kids together. The Kilmers converted to Catholicism in 1913, not long after one of their daughters, Rose, was diagnosed with polio. Rose's sickness had a profound effect on her family. Ultimately, this suffering led them to the Catholic faith.  

    Kilmer described this conversion beautifully in a letter to Fr. James J. Daly:

    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. You understand this, and it gives me a selfish pleasure to write it down. (Poems, Essays and Letters)

    "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer 

    Kilmer's probably most famous for his poem, "Trees":    

    I think that I shall never see
    A poem lovely as a tree.

    A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
    Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

    A tree that looks at God all day,
    And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

    A tree that may in Summer wear
    A nest of robins in her hair;

    Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
    Who intimately lives with rain.

    Poems are made by fools like me,
    But only God can make a tree.

    "Easter" by Alfred Joyce Kilmer

    The air is like a butterfly

    With frail blue wings.

    The happy earth looks at the sky

    And sings.

    "Easter Week" by Alfred Joyce Kilmer, In Memory of Joseph Mary Plunkett 

    "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
    It's with O'Leary in the grave."
    William Butler Yeats

        "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,

        It's with O'Leary in the grave."

        Then, Yeats, what gave that Easter dawn

        A hue so radiantly brave?

        There was a rain of blood that day,

        Red rain in gay blue April weather.

        It blessed the earth till it gave birth

        To valour thick as blooms of heather.

        Romantic Ireland never dies!

        O'Leary lies in fertile ground,

        And songs and spears throughout the years

        Rise up where patriot graves are found.

        Immortal patriots newly dead

        And ye that bled in bygone years,

        What banners rise before your eyes?

        What is the tune that greets your ears?

        The young Republic's banners smile

        For many a mile where troops convene.

        O'Connell Street is loudly sweet

        With strains of Wearing of the Green.

        The soil of Ireland throbs and glows

        With life that knows the hour is here

        To strike again like Irishmen

        For that which Irishmen hold dear.

        Lord Edward leaves his resting place

        And Sarsfield's face is glad and fierce.

        See Emmet leap from troubled sleep

        To grasp the hand of Padraic Pearse!

        There is no rope can strangle song

        And not for long death takes his toll.

        No prison bars can dim the stars

        Nor quicklime eat the living soul.

        Romantic Ireland is not old.

        For years untold her youth will shine.

        Her heart is fed on Heavenly bread,

        The blood of martyrs is her wine.

    "Father Gerard Hopkins, S. J." by Alfred Joyce Kilmer 

        Why didst thou carve thy speech laboriously,
        And match and blend thy words with curious art?
        For Song, one saith, is but a human heart
        Speaking aloud, undisciplined and free.
        Nay, God be praised, Who fixed thy task for thee!
        Austere, ecstatic craftsman, set apart
        From all who traffic in Apollo's mart,
        On thy phrased paten shall the Splendour be!

        Now, carelessly we throw a rhyme to God,
        Singing His praise when other songs are done.
        But thou, who knewest paths Teresa trod,
        Losing thyself, what is it thou hast won?
        O bleeding feet, with peace and glory shod!
        O happy moth, that flew into the Sun!

    "St. Alexis - Patron of Beggars" by Alfred Joyce Kilmer 

        We who beg for bread as we daily tread
            Country lane and city street,
         Let us kneel and pray on the broad highway
            To the saint with the vagrant feet.
         Our altar light is a buttercup bright,
            And our shrine is a bank of sod,
         But still we share St. Alexis' care,
            The Vagabond of God.

         They gave him a home in purple Rome
            And a princess for his bride,
         But he rowed away on his wedding day
            Down the Tiber's rushing tide.
         And he came to land on the Asian strand
            Where the heathen people dwell;
         As a beggar he strayed and he preached and prayed
            And he saved their souls from hell.

         Bowed with years and pain he came back again
            To his father's dwelling place.
         There was none to see who this tramp might be,
            For they knew not his bearded face.
         But his father said, "Give him drink and bread
            And a couch underneath the stair."
         So Alexis crept to his hole and slept.
            But he might not linger there.

         For when night came down on the seven-hilled town,
            And the emperor hurried in,
         Saying, "Lo, I hear that a saint is near
            Who will cleanse us of our sin,"
         Then they looked in vain where the saint had lain,
            For his soul had fled afar,
         From his fleshly home he had gone to roam
            Where the gold-paved highways are.

         We who beg for bread as we daily tread
            Country lane and city street,
         Let us kneel and pray on the broad highway
            To the saint with the vagrant feet.
         Our altar light is a buttercup bright,
            And our shrine is a bank of sod,
         But still we share St. Alexis' care,
            The Vagabond of God!

    "St. Laurence" by Alfred Joyce Kilmer 

        Within the broken Vatican
            The murdered Pope is lying dead.
         The soldiers of Valerian
            Their evil hands are wet and red.

         Unarmed, unmoved, St. Laurence waits,
            His cassock is his only mail.
         The troops of Hell have burst the gates,
            But Christ is Lord, He shall prevail.

         They have encompassed him with steel,
            They spit upon his gentle face,
         He smiles and bleeds, nor will reveal
            The Church's hidden treasure-place.

         Ah, faithful steward, worthy knight,
            Well hast thou done.    Behold thy fee!
         Since thou hast fought the goodly fight
            A martyr's death is fixed for thee.

         St. Laurence, pray for us to bear
            The faith which glorifies thy name.
         St. Laurence, pray for us to share
            The wounds of Love's consuming flame.

    "The Annunciation" by Alfred Joyce Kilmer 

    For Helen Parry Eden

       "Hail Mary, full of grace," the Angel saith.
        Our Lady bows her head, and is ashamed;
        She has a Bridegroom Who may not be named,
        Her mortal flesh bears Him Who conquers death.
        Now in the dust her spirit grovelleth;
        Too bright a Sun before her eyes has flamed,
        Too fair a herald joy too high proclaimed,
        And human lips have trembled in God's breath.

        O Mother-Maid, thou art ashamed to cover
        With thy white self, whereon no stain can be,
        Thy God, Who came from Heaven to be thy Lover,
        Thy God, Who came from Heaven to dwell in thee.
        About thy head celestial legions hover,
        Chanting the praise of thy humility

    "The Cathedral of Rheims" by Alfred Joyce Kilmer 

    From the French of Emile Verhaeren

       He who walks through the meadows of Champagne
        At noon in Fall, when leaves like gold appear,
        Sees it draw near
        Like some great mountain set upon the plain,
        From radiant dawn until the close of day,
        Nearer it grows
        To him who goes
        Across the country.    When tall towers lay
        Their shadowy pall
        Upon his way,
        He enters, where
        The solid stone is hollowed deep by all
        Its centuries of beauty and of prayer.

        Ancient French temple! thou whose hundred kings
        Watch over thee, emblazoned on thy walls,
        Tell me, within thy memory-hallowed halls
        What chant of triumph, or what war-song rings?
        Thou hast known Clovis and his Frankish train,
        Whose mighty hand Saint Remy's hand did keep
        And in thy spacious vault perhaps may sleep
        An echo of the voice of Charlemagne.
        For God thou has known fear, when from His side
        Men wandered, seeking alien shrines and new,
        But still the sky was bountiful and blue
        And thou wast crowned with France's love and pride.
        Sacred thou art, from pinnacle to base;
        And in thy panes of gold and scarlet glass
        The setting sun sees thousandfold his face;
        Sorrow and joy, in stately silence pass
        Across thy walls, the shadow and the light;
        Around thy lofty pillars, tapers white
        Illuminate, with delicate sharp flames,
        The brows of saints with venerable names,
        And in the night erect a fiery wall.
        A great but silent fervour burns in all
        Those simple folk who kneel, pathetic, dumb,
        And know that down below, beside the Rhine --
        Cannon, horses, soldiers, flags in line --
        With blare of trumpets, mighty armies come.

        Suddenly, each knows fear;
        Swift rumours pass, that every one must hear,
        The hostile banners blaze against the sky
        And by the embassies mobs rage and cry.
        Now war has come, and peace is at an end.
        On Paris town the German troops descend.
        They are turned back, and driven to Champagne.
        And now, as to so many weary men,
        The glorious temple gives them welcome, when
        It meets them at the bottom of the plain.

        At once, they set their cannon in its way.
        There is no gable now, nor wall
        That does not suffer, night and day,
        As shot and shell in crushing torrents fall.
        The stricken tocsin quivers through the tower;
        The triple nave, the apse, the lonely choir
        Are circled, hour by hour,
        With thundering bands of fire
        And Death is scattered broadcast among men.

        And then
        That which was splendid with baptismal grace;
        The stately arches soaring into space,
        The transepts, columns, windows gray and gold,
        The organ, in whose tones the ocean rolled,
        The crypts, of mighty shades the dwelling places,
        The Virgin's gentle hands, the Saints' pure faces,
        All, even the pardoning hands of Christ the Lord
        Were struck and broken by the wanton sword
        Of sacrilegious lust.

        O beauty slain, O glory in the dust!
        Strong walls of faith, most basely overthrown!
        The crawling flames, like adders glistening
        Ate the white fabric of this lovely thing.
        Now from its soul arose a piteous moan,
        The soul that always loved the just and fair.
        Granite and marble loud their woe confessed,
        The silver monstrances that Popes had blessed,
        The chalices and lamps and crosiers rare
        Were seared and twisted by a flaming breath;
        The horror everywhere did range and swell,
        The guardian Saints into this furnace fell,
        Their bitter tears and screams were stilled in death.

        Around the flames armed hosts are skirmishing,
        The burning sun reflects the lurid scene;
        The German army, fighting for its life,
        Rallies its torn and terrified left wing;
        And, as they near this place
        The imperial eagles see
        Before them in their flight,
        Here, in the solemn night,
        The old cathedral, to the years to be
        Showing, with wounded arms, their own disgrace.

    "The Robe of Christ" by Alfred Joyce Kilmer

    For Cecil Chesterton

        At the foot of the Cross on Calvary
        Three soldiers sat and diced,
        And one of them was the Devil
        And he won the Robe of Christ.

        When the Devil comes in his proper form
        To the chamber where I dwell,
        I know him and make the Sign of the Cross
        Which drives him back to Hell.

        And when he comes like a friendly man
        And puts his hand in mine,
        The fervour in his voice is not
        From love or joy or wine.

        And when he comes like a woman,
        With lovely, smiling eyes,
        Black dreams float over his golden head
        Like a swarm of carrion flies.

        Now many a million tortured souls
        In his red halls there be:
        Why does he spend his subtle craft
        In hunting after me?

        Kings, queens and crested warriors
        Whose memory rings through time,
        These are his prey, and what to him
        Is this poor man of rhyme,

        That he, with such laborious skill,
        Should change from role to role,
        Should daily act so many a part
        To get my little soul?

        Oh, he can be the forest,
        And he can be the sun,
        Or a buttercup, or an hour of rest
        When the weary day is done.

        I saw him through a thousand veils,
        And has not this sufficed?
        Now, must I look on the Devil robed
        In the radiant Robe of Christ?

        He comes, and his face is sad and mild,
        With thorns his head is crowned;
        There are great bleeding wounds in his feet,
        And in each hand a wound.

        How can I tell, who am a fool,
        If this be Christ or no?
        Those bleeding hands outstretched to me!
        Those eyes that love me so!

        I see the Robe -- I look -- I hope --
        I fear -- but there is one
        Who will direct my troubled mind;
        Christ's Mother knows her Son.

        O Mother of Good Counsel, lend
        Intelligence to me!
        Encompass me with wisdom,
        Thou Tower of Ivory!

        "This is the Man of Lies," she says,
        "Disguised with fearful art:
        He has the wounded hands and feet,
        But not the wounded heart."

        Beside the Cross on Calvary
        She watched them as they diced.
        She saw the Devil join the game
        And win the Robe of Christ

    "The Rosary" by Alfred Joyce Kilmer 

        Not on the lute, nor harp of many strings
            Shall all men praise the Master of all song.
            Our life is brief, one saith, and art is long;
         And skilled must be the laureates of kings.
         Silent, O lips that utter foolish things!
            Rest, awkward fingers striking all notes wrong!
            How from your toil shall issue, white and strong,
         Music like that God's chosen poet sings?

         There is one harp that any hand can play,
            And from its strings what harmonies arise!
         There is one song that any mouth can say, --
            A song that lingers when all singing dies.
         When on their beads our Mother's children pray
            Immortal music charms the grateful skies.

    "The Visitation" by Alfred Joyce Kilmer

    For Louise Imogen Guiney

        There is a wall of flesh before the eyes
        Of John, who yet perceives and hails his King.
        It is Our Lady's painful bliss to bring
        Before mankind the Glory of the skies.
        Her cousin feels her womb's sweet burden rise
        And leap with joy, and she comes forth to sing,
        With trembling mouth, her words of welcoming.
        She knows her hidden God, and prophesies.

        Saint John, pray for us, weary souls that tarry
        Where life is withered by sin's deadly breath.
        Pray for us, whom the dogs of Satan harry,
        Saint John, Saint Anne, and Saint Elizabeth.
        And, Mother Mary, give us Christ to carry
        Within our hearts, that we may conquer death.

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