Poet Biographies

Joyce Kilmer: An Icon of American Poetry

Joyce Kilmer was a renowned poet, editor, literary critic, lecturer, and journalist who centered his works around religion and nature. Tragically, Kilmer died young fighting in World War I.

Joyce Kilmer Portrait

Joyce Kilmer was a 20th-century poet, editor, literary critic, lecturer, and journalist who was most famously known for his poem ‘Trees.‘ Kilmer was known for his focus on romantic, religious, and natural themes. Due to his very religious Roman Catholic upbringing, it is no surprise that his work imitated his life and beliefs. As an accomplished journalist also, he worked for the New York Times and Literary Digest and became known for his insightful and thought-provoking articles and critiques. 

Joyce Kilmer’s poetry and other works left a powerful legacy, despite his untimely death at the young age of 31.

Early Life

Joyce Kilmer was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in December of 1886. He was the fourth child born to Episcopalian parents Annie Ellen Kilburn and Dr. Frederick Barnett Kilmer. Kilmer’s father was a doctor and chemist known for his invention of Johnson & Johnson baby powder, and his mother was a writer and composer. Throughout his early youth, the family lived in a small home that is now dedicated to Kilmer’s works.


When he was eight years old, he entered Rutgers College Grammar School, an institution now known as Rutgers Preparatory School. He spent time as the editor of the school’s paper, the Argo, and dedicated many of his studies to the classics. Kilmer won a prize for oratory, obtaining him a scholarship to Rutgers College. He graduated from grammar school in 1904 and followed his scholarship to Rutgers College.

Kilmer attended the college from 1904 to 1906. It was during this time period he worked as the associate editor of the Targum, the university newspaper. His studies were not up to the level the school required, and he was asked to repeat his sophomore year. Rather than continuing at Rutgers, he moved on to Columbia University in New York City. His time at Columbia was more successful. He served as the vice-present of a literary society and the associate editor of Columbia Spectator. He finished his degree in 1908.

Soon after receiving his Bachelor of Arts, he married Aline Murray in June of 1908. She was a fellow poet with whom he had been involved for many years. Together the couple would eventually have five children. That same year he found employment at Morristown High School in New Jersey and began submitting essays and poems to periodicals. Within the next year, Kilmer decided he no longer wanted to pursue a teaching career. He moved the family to New York, where he focused on his writing career.

Literary Career 

By the end of 1908, Kilmer was teaching Latin at Morristown High School in New Jersey. It was during this time period that he started submitting essays to Red Cross Notes. His first published piece of writing appeared in the publication. It was an essay titled Psychology of Advertising. At the same time, he was sending poems to other periodicals of a literary nature.

As another source of income, Kilmer wrote reviews of books for The Literary Digest, The Nation, as well as several other publications. By mid-1909, he decided to move to New York City, where he focused on writing.

Over the next three years, he worked with the publisher Funk and Wagnalls, where he helped to prepare an edition of The Standard Dictionary. He also published his first book of verse. This volume was titled ‘Summer of Love.’ In 1912, he began writing for the New York Times Review of Books and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Kilmer’s final years before the start of World War I was spent in Mahwah, New Jersey. By this time, he had become an established poet. He was also gaining popularity for his lectures which he gave without preparation.

Loss, Success, and Religion

Kilmer and his wife were struck by tragedy shortly after the birth of their daughter Rose. She was stricken by infant paralysis. The stress of the illness leads the Kilmers to convert to Roman Catholicism. They entered the church in 1913. That same year he published the work which would be his most popular, ‘Trees,’ in Poetry magazine. One of his most prominent lines from his crowning work ‘Trees,’ is “Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.” His lectures were also becoming more geared toward a Roman Catholic audience.

The following years saw his literary output increase. He published ‘Trees and Other Poems,’ in 1914, which included ‘The House With Nobody In It.’ In 1915 he became the poetry editor of Current Literature. He was also working as a contributing editor of Warner’s Library of the World’s Best Literature. From 1916 to 1917, he published four more books. The first was a volume of essays entitled, The Circus and Other Essays. It was followed by Literature in the Making and Dreams and Images: An Anthology of Catholic Poets. Then finally, a collection of verse, ‘Main Street and Other Poems.

World War I

In 1917, soon after the United States entered World War I, Kilmer enlisted with the National Guard. He rose quickly through the ranks of the service and became eligible for commission as an officer, but he refused. He professed a desire to remain in his unit rather than an office in another regiment.

The days before and directly after Kilmer left for Europe were dramatic. His daughter Rose died shortly before he left, and twelve days later, his son Christopher was born. It was also at this time that he informed his publishers that he’d be writing a war-themed book titled Here and There with the Fighting Sixty-Ninth. Unfortunately, the book was never written. His time was spent otherwise occupied, although he did manage to write some prose and poetry towards the end of 1917.

He was assigned work as a statistician, and intelligence officer, with an infantry regiment. He climbed the military ladder quickly, gaining the rank of Sergeant in a relatively short time. He arrived in France in November of the same year. While Kilmer did not write another volume of poetry during this time period, he did complete a number of poems. The most popular of these is ‘Rouge Bouquet,’ which spoke on the deaths of two dozen of his comrades in a German artillery barrage in the Rouge Bouquet forest.

Final Act of Bravery

In July of 1918, he was transferred by request to the Regimental Intelligence Section. Kilmer was held in high regard by his fellow soldiers and volunteered for extra duty during the Second Battle of Marne. He led a scouting party that was assigned the mission of locating a German machine gun. His battalion found him later, peering over the edge of a hill. He had been hit by a sniper’s bullet. He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Republic and was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Aisne, Picardy, France. In New Jersey, visitors can see a cenotaph erected on the family plot in Elmwood Cemetery.


Kilmer’s legacy lives on at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, an old-growth forest in Graham County near Robbinsville, which spans over 17,000 acres of western North Carolina and Tennessee. The forest is located in the southern section of the Appalachian Mountains. This tract of forest was named after Kilmer in his memory. Many now use the Kilmer Memorial land for hiking.

Influence on Other Poets

Joyce Kilmer’s work had a lasting impact on poetry, as many after him were influenced and inspired by his work. 

Some of these poets include:


How many poems did Joyce Kilmer write?

Throughout his short life, Joyce Kilmer was a prolific writer, publishing 87 poems spread across three collections. Without a doubt, his most famous of these poems was ‘Trees,’ which he published in August 1913, before Kilmer set off to fight in The Great War.

Where did Joyce Kilmer grow up?

Joyce Kilmer grew up in his hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he lived for the first six years of his life, from 1886 to 1892. He later attended Rutgers Preparatory School in Somerset County, New Jersey.

What happened to Joyce Kilmer?

Joyce Kilmer, the celebrated early 20th-century poet, went to Europe to fight in World War I in 1917 in support of the United States and Allied troops. Unfortunately, in July 1918, Kilmer was shot by an enemy sniper while conducting an operation on the banks of the Ourcq River near the village of Seringes-et-Nesles, in France.

How old was Joyce Kilmer when he died?

Tragically, Joyce Kilmer was only 31 years of age when he was killed in action during an offensive in World War I. He accompanied an American battalion during the Second Battle of the Marne on July 30th, 1918.

Was Joyce Kilmer a Catholic?

Yes, Joyce Kilmer was a member of the Roman Catholic faith, which became influential in his works. Kilmer was renowned for his religious themes and focused on nature and beauty.

What nationality was Joyce Kilmer?

Joyce Kilmer was of American nationality, as he was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He was so proud of his nationality that he put himself forward to represent the United States in World War I once they entered the fighting in 1917. Unfortunately, the literary world lost one of its greats during the conflict, as Kilmer was killed in action in July 1918.

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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