Friday, August 25, 2017

On Leafy Arms That Pray

It's a rainy weather here and watching the trees through my window is something I've begun to enjoy, of late. When I recently read the poem "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer, I felt that I should share my thoughts on it, here on the blog.

Quite a popular poem, it has appeared in my school books and in reading comprehension tests and I have actually read it many times at different stages of my life as a reader. And to be honest, what had seemed a very lovely poem back then doesn't impress me so much today - perhaps because I have learnt to look at the poem with a critical lens and not simply appreciate the images it paints.


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.

- Kilmer, Joyce. Trees and Other Poems. (New York: Doubleday Doran and Co., 1914), 18.

When I read it for the first time, as a child, I thought Kilmer was appreciating nature. But now I see that he was actually talking about the nature (which includes the writer himself) that appreciates "God".

The main idea of the poem seems to be that art created by humans can never be as good as that created by "God". This idea is something that appeals to anyone who believes in "God", irrespective of religion, and this alone evokes in them a stock response of appreciation or agreement.

Though the poem first published in the August 1913 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, was an immediate favourite among the general readers, his contemporaries were critical of the traditional form and the romantic, sentimental nature. It has to be noted that it was towards the twilight of Romanticism that this poem (and most of his other works as well) were written, which could also be why it wasn't a favourite among writers at least half as much as it was with the readers.

Nevertheless, the poem has enjoyed universal enduring appeal, due to its simplicity and perhaps for the pretty picture it paints with the anthropomorphic imagery. The first two lines of the poem are some of the most quoted lines - quite often in popular culture - and much read and referenced by academics as well, whether or not in a positive light.

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

"... 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."

Hillis, John. Joyce Kilmer: A Bio-Bibliography. Master of Science (Library Science) Thesis. Catholic University of America. (Washington, DC: 1962).

Feature image design ©PLB, photo by Igor Trepeshchenok, Image 2 ( the Kilmer family home) from Wikimedia Commons. All other images: personal photography. Poem reproduced under public domain copyrights.

What do you think about this poem? Have you read any other works by Kilmer?