Joyce Kilmer, Poet of “Trees”

First, thanks to my friend Sylvia, who sent me the comment on the postings for trees, noting this is the 100th anniversary of Joyce Kilmer’s death in a WWI battle in July 1918. He was only 32.

Second, this is a follow-up to my two other postings on trees. Here are the links in case you missed them:

Third,  here is the link Sylvia sent later to my email about Kilmer. All the information in this posting, including the poem: is from this website,

Note: I feel a strong affinity to Joyce Kilmer because he was born in New
Brunswick, NJ.  and I was born not far from there in what is now Hamilton, NJ.
I also attended Douglass College, a division of Rutgers, a short distance across town from Rutgers, and I actually visited the Joyce Kilmer Tree, which is no longer living. (See my P.S. below)

According to the Poetry Foundation article, Joyce Kilmer’s poetry “celebrated the common beauty of the natural world as well as his religious faith.” Dying in a WWI battle, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre (War Cross) for his bravery, There is also a National Forest in North Carolina named after Kilmer as well as other tributes of him to be found on the Internet.

As noted above, he graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ and also Columbia University in New York. He was the literary editor for a religious newspaper called The Churchman, and later became a staff member of the New York Times. (He was considered the leading Catholic American poet of his generation.)

Even though he was not required to join the military because he was a family man, he did enlist in 1917, and after a request, he transferred to the infantry and then was deployed to Europe. He quickly rose in rank  and served as an intelligence officer. He collected data and information from the enemy front line. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet in the battle of Ourcq.

Kilmer wrote Trees in 1914. Here is what the Poetry Foundation notes about this poem:

“His strong religious faith and dedication to the natural beauty of the world influences much of Kilmer’s work. “Trees” is unique for its personification of the tree in the poem, and became most popular after his death—in the 1940s and 1950s—even being put to music.”

Here is the poem from the website:



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.


P.S. I Googled for a picture of the actual Joyce Kilmer tree and in, and here is an excerpt from an article entitled:
By HERBERT MITGANG Published: December 5, 1986
(The “e” in Rutgers is omitted, either on purpose or by accident. es)

“To commemorate the centennial of the writer whose name is forever associated with one 12-line verse, ”Trees,” a 10-foot white oak (Quercus alba) was planted yesterday on the Rutgers University campus by the Shade Tree Bureau of the New Brunswick Parks Department.

It replaces a 200-year-old white oak that had a 120-foot limb spread and stood near the Rutgers Labor Education Center, south of Douglass College. The huge tree that the poet wrote ‘only God can make’ died of old age and was removed by a team of five tree surgeons a quarter of a century ago.”

After a lengthy search for the tree that inspired Kilmer’s Poem, I found this photo and note on eBay. There are many trees on many sites, but this is the only one I found that is supposedly the original tree.

1961 Press Photo New Brunswick, NJ: giant oak that inspired Kilmer poem “Trees”

One Response to “Joyce Kilmer, Poet of “Trees””

  1. Paula Says:

    One of the best poems…a favorite of mine too. hi

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