Kilmer, Aline Murray

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KILMER, Aline Murray

Born 1 August 1888, Norfolk, Virginia; died 1 October 1941, Stillwater, New Jersey

Wrote under: Aline Kilmer, Aline Murray

Daughter of Kenton and Ada Foster Murray; married Joyce Kilmer, 1908 (died); children: five

Among the literary members of Aline Murray Kilmer's family were her father, an editor; her stepfather, Henry Mills Alden, the editor of Harper's magazine; and her husband, one of the more famous poets of the day and the poetry editor of the Literary Digest. Two of her sons were published poets. Kilmer was educated at Rutgers Prep and at the Vail-Deane School in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In 1913 both she and her husband entered the Roman Catholic church. They were the parents of five children. In 1918 Sgt. Joyce Kilmer of the "Fighting 69th" was killed in action in France.

Although she had published a few poems before her marriage, selling her first poem to St. Nicholas magazine at age eleven, Kilmer was always overshadowed by her husband, both professionally and socially. Most critics concede, however, that she was the better poet. After his death, her reserve lessened, and she occasionally made lecture tours to help with expenses. She served as vice president of the Catholic Poetry Society of America. The death of her husband had been preceded by the death of one child from polio and was followed in a few years by the death of another. Both the subject matter and the tone of her work were largely determined by these events and her task of bringing up a family alone.

In Candles that Burn (1919), Kilmer presents intensely personal poems, most of them about children, and many of these dealing with the still-raw pain of personal bereavement or the fear of loss. In some of these she is unable to transcend the experience, yet already in this first volume one can occasionally see the note of gentle irony that pervades her best mature poetry.

Vigils (1921) continues Kilmer's emphasis on personal preoccupations. A mere two strings of her instrument suffice, she writes in "The Harp": "One is for love and one for death.… I play on the strings I know." Although the cry of pain reappears in many of these poems, the poet has learned to transmute her material and to choose more evocative imagery. The rhythms have become her own. Literary subjects—the Lady of Shalott and Sappho—appear.

In The Poor King's Daughter (1925), Kilmer has perfected her distinctive tone of gentle but unrelieved disillusionment, of irony delicate but never bitter. The intimacy remains, but a reticence disciplines it. The poet has now learned to maintain distance and to detach the poetic process from the experience. In "Favete Linguis," the poet admires the plum tree heavy with blossom but warns: "You lift your lute to celebrate its beauty / And all its petals flutter to the ground." The theme of enforced silence emerges again in the fine poem "Against the Wall." Here the irony of the parent calmly mending armor for the sons' fights, while silently lamenting the emptiness of victory and glory, achieves tragic overtones by Kilmer's use of conversational language and rhythms. Kilmer's prose works include two children's books and Hunting a Hair Shirt (1923), a collection of brief personal essays similar in theme and tone to her verse.

Other Works:

Emmy, Nicky, and Greg (1927). A Buttonwood Summer (1929). Selected Poems (1929).


Reference works:

Catholic Authors: Contemporary Biographical Sketches, 1930-1947 (1948). CB (Dec. 1941).

Other references:

America (18 Oct. 1941). Bookman (Dec. 1921, May 1925). Catholic World (June 1929). Commonweal (17 July 1929, 14 Aug. 1929).