A Poem For Arbor Day

Arbor
April is National Poetry Month in the US. Today is also Arbor Day, a day on which the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer is recited all over the country during arboreal celebrations. Incidentally, Joyce Kilmer was a man. The first name led me to believe otherwise but on researching the poet I discovered, along with his gender, a lot of details about his life; he died during the fighting in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918 in World War 1 at the young age of 31. He was an atheist who found faith when his little daughter was afflicted with polio and lost the use of her limbs. He was derided for writing simple and sentimental rhyming poems at a time when ‘avant-garde’ poetry was all the rage. He is best known for ‘Trees”, inspired perhaps by a view of fall foliage from the window of his home in Mahwah, NJ. Surprisingly, even this poem which succinctly captures Nature’s beauty and God’s hand in creation was dismissed as trite by many critics.
trees.jpg

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.

~ Trees, Joyce Kilmer

“Trees” is a short poem in iambic tetrameter with six rhyming couplets that make it flow in a sing-song fashion and make it easy to memorize. The rhyme scheme is aa/bb/cc/dd/ee/aa. The final words of the two lines in each couplet have the same sounds and the words of the last couplet have the same sounds as the first couplet.

Lines 1 and 2- The speaker starts by saying that a poem doesn’t compare to a tree. Humans can’t create anything as beautiful as God. It is interesting that being a poet himself, Kilmer is modest about his art.

Lines 3 and 4-  The tree depends on Mother Earth for sustenance. Nature is portrayed as a feminine entity who is generous, giving and nurturing. The roots of the tree suck water and nutrients from the earth as a child would milk from its mother’s bosom.

Lines 5 and 6-  The tree extends its limbs in supplication as if it were praying to God. The tree is personified in these lines and throughout the poem with human attributes like hair, arms, a hungry mouth and a bosom.

Lines 7 and 8 –  The tree is a place of refuge for creatures. The tree is the protector whose foliage offers shade and shelter to birds. The relationship of the trees and birds echoes the relationship of the tree and the earth. These lines beautifully highlight the interdependence of living things and the regenerative cycle of nature.

Lines 9 and 10- These lines describing the relationship between snow/ rain and the tree are vivid in sensual imagery. The tree with its bosom and knotted hair has feminine traits just like the earth. In describing nature, the poet resorts to anthropomorphic images which transport us to an emotional and spiritual plane. The tree is first portrayed as a child suckling from its mother and eventually as a young woman who lives intimately with the elements. The tree then could represent a person and God’s ingenuity in creating humans along with nature.

Lines 11 and 12-  The last two lines take us us back to the first stanza perhaps reinforcing the idea of the cyclical pattern of nature. Divine creation surpasses literary creation. The speaker/ poet is humble and there is a tinge of self-deprecation in his humility.

This poem is a hymn to nature’s beauty and bounty. The use of poetic devices like simile, personification, repetition and alliteration imbue it with a musical quality. In fact it has been set to music many times. It is also a poem with a spiritual bent, rich in religious symbolism. In a span of twelve brief lines, the visual and tactile imagery took me into the woods and up to the heavens and back. The poem is charming and striking in its simplicity. Let me not kill it by overanalyzing it. I’ll just end with this thought: I think that I shall never see a poem as pithy and profound as this poem.

Don’t you think the best way to pay tribute to this poet would be by going outdoors and planting a sapling?

 

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