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:
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: