Tuesday, December 06, 2016

`I Shall Sit Alone By the Fire'

Aline Murray, another forgotten poet, was born in 1888 in Norfolk, Va. Her father, Kenton C. Murray, was editor of the Norfolk Landmark newspaper and died when she was seven. Murray married Joyce Kilmer, a poet remembered for one poem, in 1908. The couple had five children. The second, Rose Kilburn Kilmer, was born in 1912, contracted polio shortly after birth, and died in 1917.  On July 30, 1918, at age thirty-one, Sgt. Joyce Kilmer was killed by a sniper’s bullet during the Second Battle of Marne.  He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial, near Fere-en-Tardenois in Picardy. The Kilmers’ second son, Michael, died at age ten in 1927.

I knew nothing about Aline Kilmer until I began reading about her husband, whose poem I have known for most of my life. In 1919, Aline published her first book of poetry, Candles That Burn, followed three years later by Vigils. Human sympathy demands that we read her poems, and literary rigor demands that we dismiss them. I make no claims for their poetic worth, only that after a century they document losses and grief most of us will never experience. With the biographical information supplied above, her poem “Christmas” (Candles That Burn) becomes almost unspeakably sad:

“`And shall you have a Tree,’ they say,
`Now one is dead and one away?’

“Oh, I shall have a Christmas Tree!
Brighter than ever it shall be;
Dressed out with coloured lights to make
The room all glorious for your sake.
And under the Tree a Child shall sleep
Near shepherds watching their wooden sheep.
Threads of silver and nets of gold,
Scarlet bubbles the Tree shall hold,
And little glass bells that tinkle clear.
I shall trim it alone but feel you near.

“And when Christmas Day is almost done,
When they all grow sleepy one by one,
When Kenton’s books have all been read,
When Deborah’s climbing the stairs to bed,

“I shall sit alone by the fire and see
Ghosts of you both come close to me.
For the dead and the absent always stay
With the one they love on Christmas Day.”

Joyce Kilmer was born on this date, Dec. 6, in 1886. Guy Davenport wrote of Kilmer’s “Trees,” written in 1913: “Almost immediately it became one of the most famous poems in English, the staple of school teachers and the one poem known by practically everybody.” Aline died in 1941 at age fifty-three. I learned “Trees” from Alfalfa.  Go to 13:20 to hear his version.

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