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Kilmer 1908 columbia yearbook picture
Joyce Kilmer's Columbia University yearbook photograph, c. 1908

"Trees" is a lyric poem by American poet Joyce Kilmer. Written in February 1913, it was first published in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse that August and included in Kilmer's 1914 collection Trees and Other Poems. The poem, in twelve lines of rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter verse, describes what Kilmer perceives as the inability of art created by humankind to replicate the beauty achieved by nature.

Kilmer is most remembered for "Trees", which has been the subject of frequent parodies and references in popular culture. Kilmer's work is often disparaged by critics and dismissed by scholars as being too simple and overly sentimental, and that his style was far too traditional and even archaic. Despite this, the popular appeal of "Trees" has contributed to its endurance. Literary critic Guy Davenport considers it "the one poem known by practically everybody". "Trees" is frequently included in poetry anthologies and has been set to music several times—including a popular rendition by Oscar Rasbach, performed by singers Nelson Eddy, Robert Merrill, and Paul Robeson.

The location for a specific tree as the possible inspiration for the poem has been claimed by several places and institutions connected to Kilmer's life; among these are Rutgers University, the University of Notre Dame, and towns across the country that Kilmer visited. However, Kilmer's eldest son, Kenton, declares that the poem does not apply to any one tree—that it could apply equally to any. "Trees" was written in an upstairs bedroom at the family's home in Mahwah, New Jersey, that "looked out down a hill, on our well-wooded lawn". Kenton Kilmer stated that while his father was "widely known for his affection for trees, his affection was certainly not sentimental—the most distinguished feature of Kilmer's property was a colossal woodpile outside his home".

Writing

Kilmer Home Mahwah New Jersey
The Kilmer family home in Mahwah, New Jersey, where "Trees" was written in February 1913

Mahwah: February 1913

According to Kilmer's oldest son, Kenton, "Trees" was written on 2 February 1913, when the family resided in Mahwah, New Jersey, in the northwestern corner of Bergen County. The Kilmers lived on the southwest corner of the intersection of Airmount Road and Armour Road in Mahwah for five years and the house overlooked the Ramapo Valley.

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. 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. It was dedicated to his wife's mother, Mrs. Henry Mills Alden, who was endeared to all her family.

In 2013, the notebook alluded to by Kilmer's son was uncovered by journalist and Kilmer researcher Alex Michelini in Georgetown University's Lauinger Library in a collection of family papers donated to the university by Kilmer's granddaughter, Miriam Kilmer. The "Mrs. Henry Mills Alden" to whom the poem was dedicated was Ada Foster Murray Alden (1866–1936), the mother of Kilmer's wife, Aline Murray Kilmer (1888–1941). Alden, a writer, had married Harper's Magazine editor Henry Mills Alden in 1900.

Kilmer's inspiration

Kilmer's poetry was influenced by "his strong religious faith and dedication to the natural beauty of the world."

Although several communities across the United States claim to have inspired "Trees", nothing can be established specifically regarding Kilmer's inspiration except that he wrote the poem while residing in Mahwah. Both Kilmer's widow, Aline, and his son, Kenton, refuted these claims in their correspondence with researchers and by Kenton in his memoir. Kenton wrote to University of Notre Dame researcher Dorothy Colson:

Mother and I agreed, when we talked about it, that Dad never meant his poem to apply to one particular tree, or to the trees of any special region. Just any trees or all trees that might be rained on or snowed on, and that would be suitable nesting places for robins. I guess they'd have to have upward-reaching branches, too, for the line about 'lifting leafy arms to pray.' Rule out weeping willows.

According to Kenton Kilmer, the upstairs room in which the poem was written looked down the hill over the family's "well-wooded lawn" that contained "trees of many kinds, from mature trees to thin saplings: oaks, maples, black and white birches, and I do not know what else." A published interview with Joyce Kilmer in 1915 mentioned the poet's large woodpile at the family's Mahwah home:

while Kilmer might be widely known for his affection for trees, his affection was certainly not sentimental—the most distinguished feature of Kilmer's property was a colossal woodpile outside his home. The house stood in the middle of a forest and what lawn it possessed was obtained only after Kilmer had spent months of weekend toil in chopping down trees, pulling up stumps, and splitting logs. Kilmer's neighbors had difficulty in believing that a man who could do that could also be a poet.

Publication

"Trees" was first published in the August 1913 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. The magazine, which had begun publishing the year before in Chicago, Illinois, quickly became the "principal organ for modern poetry of the English-speaking world" publishing the early works of poets who became the major influences on the development of twentieth-century literature (including T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay). Poetry paid Kilmer six dollars to print the poem, which was immediately successful. The following year, Kilmer included "Trees" in his collection Trees and Other Poems published by the George H. Doran Company.

Joyce Kilmer's reputation as a poet is staked largely on the widespread popularity of this one poem. "Trees" was liked immediately on first publication in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse; when Trees and Other Poems was published the following year, the review in Poetry focused on the "nursery rhyme" directness and simplicity of the poems, finding a particular childlike naivety in "Trees", which gave it "an unusual, haunting poignancy". However, the same review criticized the rest of the book, stating "much of the verse in this volume is very slight indeed."

Despite the enduring popular appeal of "Trees", most of Joyce Kilmer's works are largely unknown and have fallen into obscurity. A select few of his poems, including "Trees", are published frequently in anthologies. "Trees" began appearing in anthologies shortly after Kilmer's 1918 death, the first inclusion being Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry (1919). Journalist and author Mark Forsyth ranks the first two lines of "Trees" as 26th out of 50 lines in an assessment of the "most quoted lines of poetry" as measured by Google hits.

Popular appeal

With "Trees", Kilmer was said to have "rediscovered simplicity", and the simplicity of its message and delivery is a source of its appeal. In 1962, English professor Barbara Garlitz recounted that her undergraduate students considered the poem as "one of the finest poems ever written, or at least a very good one"—even after its technical flaws were discussed—because of its simple message and that it "paints such lovely pictures". The students pointed to "how true the poem is", and it appealed to both her students' "romantic attitude towards nature" and their appreciation of life, nature, solace, and beauty because of its message that "the works of God completely overshadow our own feeble attempts at creation". Considering this sentiment, the enduring popularity of "Trees" is evinced by its association with annual Arbor Day observances and the planting of memorial trees as well as the several parks named in honor of Kilmer, including the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest tracts within the Nantahala National Forest in Graham County, North Carolina.

"Trees" has been described by literary critic Guy Davenport as "the one poem known by practically everybody". According to journalist Rick Hampson, "Trees" was "memorized and recited by generations of students ... It comforted troops in the trenches of World War I. It was set to music and set in stone, declaimed in opera houses and vaudeville theaters, intoned at ceremonies each April on Arbor Day." According to Robert Holliday, Kilmer's friend and editor, "Trees" speaks "with authentic song to the simplest of hearts". Holliday added that this "exquisite title poem now so universally known made his reputation more than all the rest he had written put together" and was "made for immediate widespread popularity".

Refuted claims regarding inspiration

Due to the enduring popular appeal of "Trees", several local communities and organizations across the United States have staked their claim to the genesis of the poem. While the accounts of family members and of documents firmly establish Mahwah being the place where Kilmer wrote the poem, several towns throughout the country have claimed that Kilmer wrote "Trees" while staying there or that a specific tree in their town inspired Kilmer's writing. Local tradition in Swanzey, New Hampshire, asserts without proof that Kilmer wrote the poem while summering in the town. Montague, Massachusetts, claims that either "a sprawling maple dominated the grounds near a hospital where Kilmer once was treated" or "a spreading maple in the yard of an old mansion" inspired the poem.

In New Brunswick, New Jersey, Kilmer's hometown, the claim involved a large white oak on the Cook College campus (now the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences), at Rutgers University. This tree, the "Kilmer Oak", was estimated to be over 300 years old. Because it had been weakened by age and disease, the Kilmer Oak was removed in 1963, and in reporting by The New York Times and other newspapers the local tradition was repeated with the claim that "Rutgers said it could not prove that Kilmer had been inspired by the oak." Currently, saplings from acorns of the historic tree are being grown at the site, throughout the Middlesex County and central New Jersey, as well as in major arboretums around the United States. The remains of the original Kilmer Oak are presently kept in storage at Rutgers University.

Because of Kilmer's close identification with Roman Catholicism and his correspondence with many priests and theologians, a tree located near a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, has been asserted as the inspiration for the poem. According to Dorothy Corson, the claim was first made by a priest named Henry Kemper. There are several accounts that Kilmer visited the campus of Notre Dame to lecture and to visit friends, but none of these accounts or occasions date before 1914.

In his 1997 book of essays entitled The Geography of the Imagination, American writer Guy Davenport suggests a different inspiration for Kilmer's poem.

Trees were favorite symbols for Yeats, Frost, and even the young Pound. ... But Kilmer had been reading about trees in another context[,] the movement to stop child labor and set up nursery schools in slums. ... Margaret McMillan ... had the happy idea that a breath of fresh air and an intimate acquaintance with grass and trees were worth all the pencils and desks in the whole school system. ... The English word for gymnasium equipment is 'apparatus.' And in her book Labour and Childhood (1907) you will find this sentence: 'Apparatus can be made by fools, but only God can make a tree.'

It appears that Davenport must have loosely and erroneously paraphrased the sentiments expressed by McMillan, as this exact quote does not appear in her text. Instead, McMillan is expressing the observation that several nineteenth-century writers, including William Rankin, William Morris and Thomas Carlyle, opposed the effects of machinery on society and craftsmanship and thus eschewed machine-made items. Davenport's observation likely was derived in some way from McMillan's examination and quotation of Carlyle:

He (Carlyle) often makes comparisons between men and machines, and even trees and machines, greatly to the disadvantage of the latter. For example, 'O, that we could displace the machine god and put a man god in his place!' and 'I find no similitude of life so true as this of a tree! Beautiful! Machine of the universe!'

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