Joyce Kilmer: soldier, writer and lost voice in the American Catholic literary revival
In a wood they call the Rouge Bouquet
There is a new-made grave to-day,
Built by never a spade nor pick
Yet covered with earth ten metres thick.
There lie many fighting men,
Dead in their youthful prime,
Never to laugh nor love again
Nor taste the Summertime.
These lines from Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Rouge Bouquet” memorialize the death of 19 of his fellow American soldiers on March 7, 1918, during a German artillery bombardment of “The Fighting 69th” in the Rouge Bouquet woods in France during World War I. A shell landed atop their bunker, burying them all and adding them to a casualty list that, all told, would exceed 8,500,000 soldiers by the war’s end.
Kilmer was only 31 when he was killed by a German sniper on July 30, 1918, just as he was seemingly entering his prime as a writer and public intellectual.
Kilmer was at first glance an unlikely soldier. A graduate of Columbia University, he had worked as a Latin teacher before gaining fame as a poet and essayist (best known for his poem “Trees”), and was considered among the leading American Catholic lecturers in the years before the war. An adult convert along with his wife Aline to Catholicism in 1913, he was sometimes compared to contemporaries Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. He wrote regularly for the New York Times, and had authored six books of poetry and literary criticism by 1917. (He also wrote for America six times between 1915 and 1916.)
Though qualified to be an officer, Kilmer enlisted as a 30-year-old private in the U.S. Army shortly after the United States entered World War I in 1917, stating a desire to see action more quickly. In a 1918 tribute to Kilmer in America, the writer John Bunker described Kilmer delicately as “plump” and as having a manner “of being in fact just a trifle pompous.” Nevertheless, Kilmer proved to be a distinguished soldier in the battles that followed, and rose to the rank of sergeant. Originally named the regimental statistician, he eventually became an observer for regimental intelligence, leading scouting patrols.
“I have written very little—two prose sketches and two poems—since I left the States, but I have a rich store of memories,” Kilmer wrote to his family from France. “Not that what I write matters—I have discovered, since some unforgettable experiences, that writing is not the tremendously important thing I once considered it. You will find me less a bookman when you next see me, and more, I hope, a man.”
He would always be doing more than his orders called for, i.e., getting much nearer to the enemy’s positions than any officer would be inclined to send him. Night after night he would lie out in No Man’s Land, crawling through barbed wires, in an effort to locate enemy positions and enemy guns, and tearing his clothes to shreds.
That daring would prove his undoing. In an eyewitness account of the Second Battle of the Marne printed in America in 1918, a soldier wrote:
The battalion advanced into the woods to clear the spot of the enemy. In the course of this advance, I suddenly caught sight of Kilmer, lying on his stomach on a bit of sloping ground, his eyes just peering over the top of what appeared to be a natural trench. We called to him, but received no answer. Then I ran up and turned him on his back, only to find that he was dead with a bullet through his brain.
Kilmer was only 31 when he was killed by a German sniper on July 30, 1918, just as he was seemingly entering his prime as a writer and public intellectual. He had already signed a book contract to report on his experiences of the war. “Kilmer could have become a unique and influential literary voice in the Roaring Twenties and the Depression—and a specifically Catholic one,” Werner wrote. “The American Catholic literary revival developed in the 1930s, calling for the creation of high quality, engaging, Catholic writing. Kilmer could have led the movement.”
"Night after night he would lie out in No Man’s Land, crawling through barbed wires, in an effort to locate enemy positions and enemy guns, and tearing his clothes to shreds."
Bunker noted in his 1918 tribute that “in Kilmer’s character there was one predominant quality, and beside this in the last few years of his life by the course of events a second came to take a prominent stand. The one was his spirituality, his deep sense of religion, and the other, to which he has just given the final and supreme expression, his patriotism.”
For his service, the French honored Joyce Kilmer posthumously with the Croix de Guerre. He is buried near where he was killed, in Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, Fere-en-Tardenois, France. He was remembered yesterday, Memorial Day, along with the more than 600,000 American soldiers who have lost their lives in combat, including more than 53,000 killed in World War I in just over 17 months of fighting.
Shortly after Kilmer’s death, America published a poem by Dr. Blanche Mary Kelly in his honor that included the following lines:
For that your head low doth lie
Many heads are carried high.
Many hearts exultant thrill
For that your heart lies so still.
Your heart that was all dedicate
To God, your lady and the great
And secret lore that lies.
Outspread to saints’ and poets’ eyes.
“The American Catholic literary revival developed in the 1930s, calling for the creation of high quality, engaging, Catholic writing. Kilmer could have led the movement.”
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
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James T. Keane