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Joyce Kilmer's 'Trees,' Penned in Mahwah, to Mark 100th Anniversary

Joyce Kilmer, poet, journalist and patriot, wrote the world-famous poem "Trees" at his home in Mahwah, NJ on February 2, 1913, extensive research by the Mahwah Historic Preservation Commission shows.

(Note: The following report originally was submitted by Alex Michelini to the Mahwah Historic Preservation Commission on August 1, 2011 at a time Mr. Michelini was a member of the Commission)

MAHWAH, NJ -- On a winter's day in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains, the man of the house at the corner of Airmount and Armour Roads sat at his desk in the afternoon light and put the finishing touches on a composition that would be known around the world.

The date was February 2, 1913. The composition was the poem "Trees." The writer was poet Joyce Kilmer, still in his 20s, and his new offering celebrating the beauty of trees became one of the most loved and quoted poems of all time.

"Trees" will mark its 100th birthday this coming Saturday, February 2.

It was first published in Poetry magazine in August, 1913, and over the years, millions of school children have learned it by heart, it has been revered by arborists, set to music -- and the object of claims of many places as to its inspiration.

Even a University of Notre Dame brochure described how a visiting Kilmer received his inspiration from "a big tree" in a grotto at the school.

M. H. Forsyth's list of 50 "Most Quoted Lines of Poetry" measured by the number of Google reads on the Internet pegs it at No. 26 with 1,080,000 reads, eclipsing some of the works by such literary giants as T. S. Eliot,  Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Rudyard Kipling and even some by the Bard of Avon.

Kilmer, in his relatively short life of 31 years, became much more than a poet -- an accomplished literary critic and lecturer, a versatile journalist, the leading American laureate of the Catholic Church (after his conversion from Episcopalian while living in Mahwah) and a patriot of World War I.

Kilmer lived in Mahwah betweeen 1912 and 1917.

His son, Kenton, who died in 1955, said he had the notebook in which "Trees" was written and dated.

In an interview with Dorothy V. Corson, author of "The Spirit of Notre Dame," Corson said Kenton told her "Trees" was written in his home in Mahwah, NJ on Feb. 2, 1913.

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 and mother wrote out copies of several of their poems, and in most cases added the date of composition. One 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."

In his own book, "Memories of My Father, Joyce Kilmer," published in 1993, Kenton wrote that the upstairs room was his parents' bedroom which also served as Joyce's ofice. 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 Benedict nun who was also a poet, told Corson that it was also her understanding "Trees" was written in their New Jersey home.

Several months later, 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, 1913.

While in Mahwah, Kilmer also wrote the sad and poignant "The House With Nobody in It," based on a house that he regularly walked past en route to an express train in Suffern on his way to his job at The New York Times.

After his hiking outdoors in Mahwah, he also wrote the poem "Mount Houvenkopf" that began: "Serene he stands, with mist serenly crowned."

The huge boulder in front of his house remains today with a metal plaque from the Mahwah Women's Club, 1952, inscribed with the words that Joyce Kilmer lived in this house when he wrote Trees.

On his way to the Suffern station on August 2, 1916, Kilmer was struck while trying to board a train and suffered three broken ribs. He attributed his escape from death to receiving "the Blessed Sacrament" an hour earlier.

Joyce purchased the lot in the Cragmere Park section of Mahwah in 1911, and moved into the house in mid-1912.

He and his wife, Aline, also a poet, converted to Catholicism in 1913 after their first daughter, Rose, was diagnosed with Polio and later died at age 5.

Kilmer was born in New Brunswick "Alfred Joyce Kilmer" on December 6, 1886, but discarded his first name soon after being published, according to biographer Robert Cortez Holliday.

His father, Frederick Barnett Kilmer whose family descended from Palatine immigrants, was a pharmacist and a founder of Johnson & Johnson and was credited with developing the company's famous baby powder, J & J historians said.

Joyce often proclaimed himself "half Irish," but biographer Holliday said he loved all things Irish (poets, Irish Catholics and Irish soldiers) but was really of German/English stock. His grand-daughter Miriam Kilmer, who lives in Alexandria, VA, agreed -- "he was Irish by adoption."

The U.S. entry into World War I prompted Kilmer to enlist in the Army, and he was killed by a sniper bullet in France, where he is buried.

A bittersweet assessment in "The Outlook" weekly current events magazine of September 4, 1918 observed Kilmer was "in no sense a great poet."

But 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."

A 3,840-acre chunk of Slick Rock Wilderness Area in western North Carolina was named the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in 1936.

Along with many other tributes, there is a Joyce Kilmer tree and plaque in New York's Central Park, Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium, Joyce Kilmer Triangle in Brooklyn, Kilmer Triangle in Chicago and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Fireplace in Como Park, St. Paul, MN.

(The Mahwah Historic Preservation Commission, at its meeting of December 5, 2011, approved a series of tributes to Kilmer proposed by Mr. Michelini that included a poetry contest in the schools, a township proclaimation citing February 2, 2013 as Joyce Kilmer Day, the planting of a tree on Arbor Day and a Joyce Kilmer exhibit in the Mahwah Public Library. To date, none of the approved tributes has been implemented).

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

John Roth January 30, 2013 at 09:38 PM
Thoroughly researched and extraordinarily well written. Thank you Alex Michelini for deepening our understanding of this historic individual and the 100th anniversary.

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