Joyce Kilmer by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

I

I wonder if there is any other country where the death of a young poet is double-column front-page news?

And if poets were able to proofread their own obits, I wonder if any two lines would have given Joyce Kilmer more honest pride than these:

JOYCE KILMER, POET,
IS KILLED IN ACTION

which gave many hearts a pang when they picked up the newspaper last Sunday morning.

Joyce Kilmer died as he lived–“in action.” He found life intensely amusing, unspeakably interesting; his energy was unlimited, his courage stout. He attacked life at all points, rapidly gathered its complexities about him, and the more intricate it became the more zestful he found it. Nothing bewildered him, nothing terrified. By the time he was thirty he had attained an almost unique position in literary circles. He lectured on poetry, he interviewed famous men of letters, he was poet, editor, essayist, critic, anthologist. He was endlessly active, full of delightful mirth and a thousand schemes for outwitting the devil of necessity that hunts all brainworkers. Nothing could quench him. He was ready to turn out a poem, an essay, a critical article, a lecture, at a few minutes’ notice. He had been along all the pavements of Grub Street, perhaps the most exciting place of breadwinning known to the civilized man. From his beginning as a sales clerk in a New York bookstore (where, so the tale goes, by misreading the price cipher he sold a $150 volume for $1.50) down to the time when he was run over by an Erie train and dictated his weekly article for the New York Times in hospital with three broken ribs, no difficulties or perplexities daunted him.

But beneath this whirling activity which amused and amazed his friends there lay a deeper and quieter vein which was rich in its own passion. It is not becoming to prate of what lies in other men’s souls; we all have our secrecies and sanctuaries, rarely acknowledged even to ourselves. But no one can read Joyce Kilmer’s poems without grasping his vigorous idealism, his keen sense of beauty, his devout and simple religion, his clutch on the preciousness of common things. He loved the precarious bustle on Grub Street; he was of that adventurous, buoyant stuff that rejects hum-drum security and a pelfed and padded life. He always insisted that America is the very shrine and fountain of poetry, and this country (which is indeed pathetically eager to take poets to its bosom) stirred his vivid imagination. The romance of the commuter’s train and the suburban street, of the delicatessen shop and the circus and the snowman in the yard–these were the familiar themes where he was rich and felicitous. Many a commuter will remember his beautiful poem “The 12:45,” bespeaking the thrill we have all felt in the shabby midnight train that takes us home, yearning and weary, to the well-beloved hearth:

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What love commands, the train fulfills
And beautiful upon the hills
Are these our feet of burnished steel.
Subtly and certainly, I feel
That Glen Rock welcomes us to her.
And silent Ridgewood seems to stir
And smile, because she knows the train
Has brought her children back again.
We carry people home–and so
God speeds us, wheresoe’er we go.
The midnight train is slow and old,
But of it let this thing be told,
To its high honour be it said,
It carries weary folk to bed.

To a man such as this, whose whole fervent and busy adventure was lit within by the lamplight and firelight of domestic passion, the war, with its broken homes and defiled sanctities, came as a personal affront. Both to his craving for the glamour of such a colossal drama, and to his sense of what was most worshipful in human life, the call was irresistible. Counsels of prudence and comfort were as nothing; the heart-shaking poetry of this nation’s entry into an utterly unselfish war burned away all barriers. His life had been a fury of writing, but those who thought he had entered the war merely to make journalism about it were mistaken. Only a few weeks before his death he wrote:

To tell the truth, I am not interested in writing nowadays, except in so far as writing is the expression of something beautiful. And I see daily and nightly the expression of beauty in action instead of words, and I find it more satisfactory. I am a sergeant in the regimental intelligence section–the most fascinating work possible–more thrills in it than in any other branch, except, possibly, aviation. Wonderful life! But I don’t know what I’ll be able to do in civilian life–unless I become a fireman!

As journalist and lecturer Kilmer was copious and enthusiastic rather than deep. He found–a good deal to his own secret mirth–women’s clubs and poetry societies sitting earnestly at his feet, expectant to hear ultimate truth on deep matters. His humour prompted him to give them the ultimate truth they craved. If his critical judgments were not always heavily documented or long pondered, they were entertaining and pleasantly put. The earnest world of literary societies and blue-hosed salons lay about his feet; he flashed in it merrily, chuckling inwardly as he found hundreds of worthy people hanging breathless on his words. A kind of Kilmer cult grew apace; he had his followers and his devotees. I mention these things because he would have been the first to chuckle over them. I do not think he would want to be remembered as having taken all that sort of thing too seriously. It was all a delicious game–part of the grand joke of living. Sometimes, among his friends, he would begin to pontificate in his platform manner. Then he would recall himself, and his characteristic grin would flood his face.

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As a journalist, I say, he was copious; but as a poet his song was always prompted by a genuine gush of emotion. “A poet is only a glorified reporter,” he used to say; he took as his favourite assignment the happier precincts of the human heart. As he said of Belloc, a true poet will never write to order–not even to his own order. He sang because he heard life singing all about him. His three little books of poems have always been dear to lovers of honest simplicity. And now their words will be lit henceforward by an inner and tender brightness–the memory of a gallant boy who flung himself finely against the walls of life. Where they breached he broke through and waved his sword laughing. Where they hurled him back he turned away, laughing still.

II

Kilmer wrote from France, in answer to an inquiry as to his ideas about poetry, “All that poetry can be expected to do is to give pleasure of a noble sort to its readers.” He might have said “pleasure or pain of a noble sort.”

It is both pleasure and pain, of a very noble sort, that the reader will find in Robert Cortes Holliday’s memoir, which introduces the two volumes of Kilmer’s poems, essays, and letters. The ultimate and eloquent tribute to Kilmer’s rich, brave, and jocund personality is that it has raised up so moving a testament of friendship. Mr. Holliday’s lively and tender essay is worthy to stand among the great memorials of brotherly affection that have enriched our speech. To say that Kilmer was not a Keats is not to say that the friendship that irradiates Mr. Holliday’s memoir was less lovely than that of Keats and Severn, for instance. The beauty of any human intercourse is not measured by the plane on which it moves.

Pleasure and pain of a noble sort are woven in every fibre of this sparkling casting-up of the blithe years. Pleasure indeed of the fullest, for the chronicle abounds in the surcharged hilarity and affectionate humour that we have grown to expect in any matters connected with Joyce Kilmer. The biographer dwells with loving and smiling particularity on the elvish phases of the young knight-errant. It is by the very likeness of his tender and glowing portrait that we find pleasure overflowing into pain–into a wincing recognition of destiny’s unriddled ways with men. This memory was written out of a full heart, with the poignance that lies in every backward human gaze. It is only in the backward look that the landscape’s contours lie revealed in their true form and perspective. It is only when we have lost what was most dear that we know fully what it meant. That is Fate’s way with us: it cannot be amended.

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There will be no need for the most querulous appraiser to find fault with Mr. Holliday on the score of over-eulogy. He does not try to push sound carpentry or ready wit into genius. Fortune and his own impetuous onslaught upon life cast Kilmer into the role of hack journalist: he would have claimed no other title. Yet he adorned Grub Street (that most fascinating of all thorny ways) with gestures and music of his own. Out of his glowing and busy brain he drew matter that was never dull, never bitter or petty or slovenly. In the fervent attack and counter-attack, shock and counter-shock of his strenuous days he never forgot his secret loyalty to fine craftsmanship. He kept half a dozen brightly coloured balls spinning in air at all times–verses, essays, reviews, lectures, introductions, interviews, anthologies, and what-not; yet each of these was deftly done. When he went to France and his days of hack work were over, when the necessities of life no longer threatened him, the journalistic habit fell away. It was never more than a garment, worn gracefully, but still only what the tailors call a business suit.

In France, Kilmer wrote but a handful of pieces intended for publication, but at least one of them–the prose sketch “Holy Ireland”–showed his essential fibre. The comparative silence of his pen when he found himself face to face with war was a true expression. It bespoke the decent idealism that underlay the combats of a journalist wringing a living out of the tissues of a busy brain. The tender humour and quaint austerity of his homeward letters exhibit the man at his inmost. What could better the imaginative genius of the phrase in which he speaks of friendship developed by common dangers and hardships as “a fine, hearty, roaring, mirthful sort of thing, like an open fire of whole pine trees in a giant’s castle?”

The memoir and Kilmer’s own letters admit us to see something of the spiritual phases of this man’s life, whose soul found “happiness and quiet kind” in the Roman Catholic faith. The most secret strengths and weaknesses that govern men’s lives are strangely unknown to many of their intimates: one wonders how many of Kilmer’s associates on the Times staff knew of his habit of stopping daily at the Church of the Holy Innocents, near the newspaper office, to pray. It was the sorrow of personal affliction that brought Kilmer to the Catholic Church. Shortly after being received into that communion he wrote:

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Just off Broadway on the way from the Hudson Tube Station to the Times Building, there is a church called the Church of the Holy Innocents. Since it is in the heart of the Tenderloin, this name is strangely appropriate–for there surely is need of youth and innocence. Well, every morning for months I stopped on my way to the office and prayed in this church for 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 still know beautiful paths.

Mr. Holliday does well to point out that Kilmer was almost unique in this country as a representative of the Bellocian School of Catholic journalism, in which piety and mirth dwell so comfortably together; though he might have mentioned T. A. Daly as an older and subtler master of devout merriment, dipping in his own inkwell rather than in any imported bottles. It is to Belloc, of course, and to Gilbert Chesterton, that one must go to learn the secret of Kilmer’s literary manner. Yet, as Holliday affirms, the similarity is due as much to an affinity of mind with these Englishmen as to any eagerness to imitate. Kilmer was like them in being essentially a humorist. One glance at his face, with its glowing red-brown eyes (the colour of port wine), and the twitching in-drawn corners of the mouth, gave the observer an impression of benignant drollery. Mr. Holliday well says: “People have made very creditable reputations as humorists who never wrote anything like as humorous essays as those of Joyce Kilmer. They fairly reek with the joy of life.”

“He that lives by the pen shall perish by the pen,” the biographer tells us, quoting James Huneker. “For a sapling poet, within a few short years and by the hard business of words, to attain to a secretary and a butler and a family of, at length, four children, is a modern Arabian Nights Tale.” Aye, indeed! But Joyce Kilmer will have as genuine a claim on remembrance by reason of his friends’ love as in anything his own hand penned. And what an encircling, almost paternal, gentleness there is in the picture of the young poet as a salesman at Scribner’s bookstore:

His smile, never far away, when it came was winning, charming. It broke like spring sunshine, it was so fresh and warm and clear. And there was noticeable then in his eyes a light, a quiet glow, which marked him as a spirit not to be forgotten. So tenderly boyish was he in effect that his confreres among the book clerks accepted with difficulty the story that he was married. When it was told that he had a son they gasped their incredulity. And when one day this extraordinary elfin sprite remarked that at the time of his honeymoon he had had a beard they felt (I remember) that the world was without power to astonish them further.

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And even more striking is what is implied in the narrative: that when this “elfin sprite,” this gently nurtured young man of bookish pursuits, took up the art of war, he gloried in his association with a rip-roaring regiment recruited mainly from hard-handed fellows of the type we may call (with no atom of disrespect) roughnecks. Hardships and exertions familiar to them were new to him, but he set himself to win their love and respect, and did so. He was not content until he had found his way into the most exhausting and hazardous branch of the whole job. He said, again and again, that he would rather be a sergeant with the 69th than a lieutenant with any other outfit. There was a heart of heroism in the “elfin sprite.” The same dashing insouciance that dictated the weekly article for his paper when in hospital with three broken ribs after being run down by a train was hardened and steeled in the sergeant who nightly tore his uniform into ribbons by crawling out through the barbed wire.

Laughter and comradeship and hearty meals clustered about Kilmer: wherever he touched the grindstone of life there flew up a merry shower of sparks. There is convincing testimony to the courage and beauty that lay quiet at the heart of this singer who said that the poet is only a glorified reporter, and wished he had written “Casey at the Bat.”

Let us spare his memory the glib and customary dishonesty that says “He died as he would have wished to.” No man wishes to die–at least, no poet does. To part with the exhilarating bustle and tumult, the blueness of the sky, the sunlight that tingles on well-known street corners, the plumber’s bills and the editor’s checks, the mirths of fellowship and the joys of homecoming when lamps are lit–all this is too close a fibre to be stripped easily from the naked heart. But the poet must go where the greatest songs are singing. Perhaps he finds, after all, that life and death are part of the same rhyme.

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