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“Trees” by Joyce Kilmer

Trees’ by Joyce Kilmer was written in February of 1913 and was first published in Poetry: A Magazine of
Verse. It was then included in Trees and Other Poems, one of Kilmer’s most popular volumes. It is
for‘Trees’ that Kilmer is most widely remembered. The poem has become well-loved due to its accessible
simplicity and has been frequently included in popular anthologies of modern poetry. In more recent years, it
has been set to music and performed by a number of different musicians.
There has been speculation since the conception of this piece about whether or not there was one tree the
poet had in mind while composing the text. It has been suggested that Rutgers University or the University of
Notre Dame are possible locations for the tree Kilmer has in mind. Although, the poet later stated the poem
was written in the family home in Mahwah, New Jersey likely placing the specific setting, (if there is one),
there.

‘Trees’ is made up of twelve lines which are separated into six sets of two lines, or couplets. Kilmer has chosen
to conform the poem to a consistent rhyme scheme of aa bb cc dd ee aa. The poet has also selected to utilize
an almost entirely unifying metrical pattern. All the lines, expect one, are written in iambic tetrameter. The
eleventh line of the piece begins on a stressed syllable and drops the unstressed.
A reader should also take note of the significant use of personification. Kilmer’s speaker refers to the tree as a
woman, relating the plant to the larger figure of Mother Earth. He also imbues the tree with a number of
human characteristics, including arms and hair.

Summary of Trees
‘Trees’ by Joyce Kilmer contains a speaker’s impassioned declaration that no art can outdo one of God’s
creations, especially not a tree.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he will never see a poem that is more beautiful than a tree. He
does not believe that humanity is capable of making something better than what God has made. The following
lines are devoted to the type of tree he has in mind. It will have an intimate connection to the earth and its
elements. There will be birds nesting in the branches in the summer, and gentle snow on the tree’s “bosom”
in the winter.
The poem concludes with the speaker explaining that no matter what humankind does, no poem or piece of
art will be lovelier than what already exists on the planet.

Analysis of Trees
Lines 1-4
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;

The first couplet of this piece begins with a simple, yet impactful statement about the future. Kilmer’s speaker
declares, without any further introduction, that he will “never see / A poem lovely as a tree.” His words are
straightforward and easily accessible, an appealing aspect of this piece. He knows without a doubt, that every
tree on the planet is greater and more “lovely” than even the most beautiful poem.
In the following lines he moves from a generalized image of all trees, to one specific type or kind. The tree he
has in mind has its “hungry mouth..prest” to the earth. It is taking in the nutrients provided by the soil and
becoming sweeter off the “earth’s…breast.” There is a clear use of personification in these lines. This is
something he will continue throughout the poem’s entirety. It is used in an effort to make something
inanimate feel more real. A reader is better able to empathize with the subject if it is human.
Lines 5-8
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;

In the third couplet the speaker develops the character of this type of tree further. Due to its position on the
planet, and it’s generally unchanging structure, it is always facing God. It “looks at God all day.” This fact is
to the tree’s benefit. It’s religiosity at once makes it more and less human. The tree finds a connection with a
God as much of humanity does, but it more devote than any could hope to be. In the next lines the speaker
refers to the tree as “her.” This is a direct connection to the larger symbol of Mother Earth, a residing female
presence on the planet responsible for the growth and cultivation of life. She spends all day looking to God,
and “lift[ing]” her “arms to pray.”
The next two lines bring the tree back to Earth. While “she” may be devoted, “she” also remains as part of the
earth. In the “Summer” there will be a “nest of robins in her hair.” This quirky line is meant to endear the
tree to the reader. The physical, mundane world is still at work around the tree.

Lines 9-12

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.

In the second to last couplet of “Trees’ the speaker continues to describe how the seasons impact the look of
the tree. The “tree” has become quite specific at this point. It has moved from a generalized, all-encompassing
symbol to a specific plant the speaker can recall in detail.
When winter comes, there will be “snow” on the “bosom” of the tree. It will rest there gently, doing no harm
to “her” branches. The speaker concludes these descriptions with a reference to rain. Just like the sun and the
snow, this element does not do anything to act against or injure the tree. “She” lives “intimately with rain”
just as “she” does with everything else.
In the final two lines the speaker returns to the overall theme of the piece, that art cannot match nature. This,
he explains, is due to humanity’s own way of being. No man or woman can outdo one of God’s creations.