‘I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.’ As opening lines of poems go, it’s instantly recognisable, and perhaps one of the most self-undoing. ‘Trees’ by Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918), an American writer and poet, delights in the beauty of trees even as it acknowledges the limits of the poet’s craft. Below is ‘Trees’, followed by some words of analysis.
‘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.
NB: ‘Joyce’ was actually a man, whose full name was Alfred Joyce Kilmer; he was killed at the Second Battle of Marne in July 1918, aged just 31.
The tone of Joyce Kilmer’s ‘Trees’ is light-hearted, as the final couplet makes clear: poems are foolish things next to nature, but nature – embodied in the poem by the tree – is superior because it is the work of God. God is mentioned several times in Kilmer’s poem: ‘only God can make a tree’, but earlier, ‘A tree that looks at God all day’.
God and Nature are in harmony; poems and poets are trivial things by comparison. (One might even lament the fact that such a beautiful thing as a tree is cut down in order to provide the paper for many terrible poems to be written or printed…)
But if nature is godly, she is also female: Mother Nature, if you will. And, by association, the tree in the poem is feminine: earth has a maternal ‘sweet flowing breast’, while the tree itself has a ‘bosom’ upon which snow, in the winter, has settled.
If you enjoyed Joyce Kilmer’s ‘Trees’, you might also enjoy our analysis of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem about the Binsey poplars.