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Analysis of Poem "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Joyce Kilmer

Joyce Kilmer

Joyce Kilmer and a Summary of "Trees"

"Trees" is (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer's most popular poem and was first published in the Poetry magazine, August 1913. It was later the title poem of a book.

This entertaining, if limited, short poem of six full rhyming couplets in which the first-person speaker praises the tree and then God for making it in the first place, uses personification and ironic contrast to make its point—poems will never match trees, the work of God.

Only God can make a tree, something which the speaker could never do. This is why the tree is something of a miracle, to be wondered at. A mere poem comes nowhere near a tree—and the poet is a fool—despite the poem being the vital link, the vehicle of acknowledgement.

The poem inspires the idea: only God can make a tree, but to know this, a fool has to make the poem that communicates this profound proposition. The poem is necessary because it alone carries the essential message about God and the tree. But the poet's premise is that he is a fool because he has written the poem—despite conveying such an important notion.

Over the years, despite being labelled sentimental and insipidly romantic, this poem has become one of the most popular there is. Most poetry lovers at least know of it, many know to steer clear of it, and some positively know it by heart.

Kilmer's poetry has been criticised by some for being 'greeting card friendly'; others think it bad poetry—doggerel—because it sticks to regular full rhyme and the metric beats are predictable and so on.

It could be argued that this particular poem sets out quite plainly its intentions and offers consolation for those who want to go no further than easy rhyme and beat, and simplified meaning.

In recent times, it has grown in stature simply because trees are under threat worldwide. Over the years, many musicians have set the words to music. "Trees" has also been parodied.

Born in New Brunswick, NJ, USA in 1886, Joyce Kilmer studied at both Rutger and Colombia Universities, married in 1908, had several children (one, Rose, died at the age of five with poliomyelitis) and was killed on active duty in the Great War in France, 1918.

By then he had become well known as a poet and editor. His early death at age 31 whilst gathering intelligence out in no man's land, between the allied and German trenches, added to the aura.

"I believed in the Catholic position, the Catholic view of ethics and aesthetics, for a long time. But I wanted something not intellectual, some conviction not mental—in fact I wanted Faith....

Well, every morning for months I stopped on my way to the office and prayed in this church for faith. When faith did come, it came, I think, by way of my little paralysed daughter. Here lifeless hands led me; I think her tiny still feet know beautiful paths. You understand this and it gives me a selfish pleasure to write it down."

-Letters to Father Daly, 1914

(Alfred) Joyce Kilmer is buried at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in northern France.

"Trees" by Joyce Kilmer

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.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of "Trees"

Six stanzas in total, the first and sixth complimenting one another, whilst stanzas two through five are detailing the personification—tree as human, or with human traits and attributes—the stanzas flowing along on the commas.

First Stanza

In the opening line the first person speaker (I) contrasts a poem with a tree, declaring that no poem could ever match a tree for loveliness. There is arguably an element of doubt in 'I think'—as if the speaker is in the process of forming a concrete opinion but isn't quite there yet.

Second Stanza

A tree with a hungry mouth, like a baby, taking liquid nourishment from the earth Mother. This is an unusual image, tree as baby, because a tree drinks with roots in real life. Kilmer chose to personify the tree which brings it closer to the human experience.

Third Stanza

The tree has eyes and arms as the personification continues. It is looking at God all day, that is, it needs the light. And the arms as branches seem to be praying, silently held towards the sky, heaven, in a gesture of humility.

Fourth Stanza

The tree is female and wears a nest of robins when the summer season arrives.

Fifth Stanza

Into winter now, snow laying on the bosom of the tree, feeling the rain as intimate, as if the tree had skin and sensation. This is the only stanza without the word tree in it.

Sixth Stanza

A confession from the speaker parallels the opening stanza. Poems are the product of a fool, trees are made by God and must therefore be superior.

Sources

  • Poetry Foundation
  • "The tragedy of Joyce Kilmer, the Catholic poet killed in World War I" (America Magazine)
  • "On Joyce Kilmer’s 'Trees'" (Crisis Magazine)

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

Comments

Andrew Spacey (author) from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on May 15, 2021:

Chitrangada you are welcome, thank you for the visit. Take care.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 15, 2021:

Hello Andrew!

That’s a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the poem, Trees, by Joyce Kilmer.

The last two lines are especially interesting.

Thank you for sharing this nice review.

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