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Critiques on Three Classical Poems: Housman, Kilmer, and Magee

Updated on January 1, 2016
Alfred Edward Housman (1910)
Alfred Edward Housman (1910) | Source

A. E. Housman

Alfred Edward Housman, an English poet and scholar, was born in 1859. The poem "With rue my heart is laden" is the 54th of 63 poems in The Shropsire Lad, which was self-published by Housman in 1896.

Housman decided to publish the book himself after being rejected by established publishers. Three years later, the book reached a status of popularity with the influence of the Second Boer War, a two-year battle maintaining the British Empire's sovereignty over two of its African republics. This popularity was further enhanced by World War I.

Houseman served as a professor at the universities of London College and Cambridge. He died in 1936 at the age of 77.

Poetical audiences like the poems for their rustic expressions and empathetic war-related sentiments. His poems are still regarded as classics today and often offered for study in high school and college literature courses.

LIV With rule my heart is laden

WITH rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipt maiden

And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping

The lightfoot boys are laid;

The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade. ~

Assessing the Poem

Like many classical poems, syntax is changed from the standard subject-verb-other sentence formation. This technique dramatizes the words.

Poetic license is demonstrated in Housman's use of golden, rose-lipt, and lightfoot. Friends are not normally described as "golden," rather the idiomatic expression would be "golden memories." The interpretation is clear, however, that "golden" refers to worthwhile and trusted relationships.

In looking at the lines carefully, the syllables slightly vary with a count of 7 - 6 - 8 -7 in the first four lines and then followed by 7 - 6 - 7 - 6. The third and fourth lines can easily be reduced by one syllable so that the remaining four lines become a mirror rhythm of the first four. This is done by eliminating the article "a" in both those third and fourth lines and changing the nouns to a plural form, i.e. lads and maidens.

However, the changes compromise the rhymes between "laden" and "maiden" / "had" and "lad" with near rhymes. The singular forms also suggest that the author may have intended to deepen the meaning of his feelings by remembering each of his friends as individuals.

Joyce Kilmer (1908)
Joyce Kilmer (1908) | Source

Joyce Kilmer

Alfred Joyce Kilmer, an American journalist and lecturer, was born in 1886 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. His name is in honor of two priests in his hometown; his middle name was one of the priest's surname and not a feminine appellation.

He was raised Anglican and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1913, the same year "Trees" was published in Poetry magazine. The conversion was inspired by his little daughter's poliomyelitis. Kilmer said he needed something to balance intellectualism in his life.

Part of Kilmer's career was writing dictionary definitions for Funk and Wagnalls. According to Wikipedia, he excelled at this work.

He served in WW I in the U.S. 69th Infantry Regiment wherein he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and later transferred to the military intelligence division. He wrote a memorable poem "Rouge Bouquet" commemorating nearly two dozen of his soldier comrades who died from German artillery near Baccarat, France.

Joyce Kilmer died from a sniper's bullet to the brain while on a scouting mission during the Second Battle of Marne in 1918. He was only 31 years old.


I THINK that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth's 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. ~

Assessing the Poem

While most of Kilmer's works fade into obscurity, "Trees" is remembered for its religious personification. While the title is plural, the poem addresses one tree in its sacredness and describes it in a feminine tone.

The poem contains six rhyming couplets and alternates seven- and eight-syllabic lines. Some poetic license is used with the word "prest," a spelling more closely resembling "breast" than the commonly used "pressed." The iambic meter remains constant throughout the poem.

The words--lovely, breast, her leafy arms, her hair, bosom, and intimately--strongly depict Kilmer's comparison of a tree to a woman in harmony with the idea that nature is "Mother Nature."

The line "Poems are made by fools like me" says something about the poet's humility in his realization that his words cannot truly do justice to the tree's awesome spirit which he is experiencing.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (1941)
John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (1941) | Source

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was an American aviator and poet who was born in Shanghai, China, in 1922 to missionary parents, an American father and British mother.

His childhood education included locations in China, England, and the United States. He developed his poetry at Rugby School in England, with much of his poetry inspired by the history of Rugby students who had died in WW I and his admiration of the headmaster's daughter. He won the school's poetry award in 1938.

Although he earned a scholarship to Yale, he opted to enter the Canadian Royal Air Force in 1940 and graduated from flight training school in 1941, after which he went to Wales, Britain, to train on the Supermarine Spitfire, a fighter aircraft designed for a single pilot.

During a training exercise with the Spitfire, Magee accidently collided with the leading aircraft trainer over Roxholme hamlet in Lincolnshire, England, and both men were killed. John Magee was 19 at the time of his death. The first and last lines of his poem "High Flight" were carved onto his headstone located in Scopwick (Lincolnshire, England).

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God. ~

Assessing the Poem

This poem consists of 14 lines with an a-b-a-b/c-d-c-d/e-f-e-g-f-g rhyme scheme. The imagery carries the distinct spirit of a pilot. The first line begins with the interjection "Oh!", creating a stress before the iambic syllables, of which there are ten per line, except the line containing "delirious." This tiny glitch could be corrected by eliminating one "up" at the beginning of the line or omitting an "i" from the word, i.e. delir'ous, in accordance with poetic license.

There are wonderful examples of alliteration in the poem with slipped - surly, sun-split, soared - swung, sunlit - silence, and sanctity - space. There are also repeated -ng suffixes that give a sense of action: tumbling, swung, Hov'ring, shouting, flung, and lifting.

Unique word choices add to the mirth of this piece. The phrase "laughter-silvered wings" suggests a silver so bright that it causes a state of glee. And how about "footless halls of air?" In other words, looking down, there is no bottom--only more blue. "The high untrespassed sanctity of space" gives one the sense of wonder experienced when treading the unknown, that which is yet to be discovered. There is small wonder why this poem has been officiated by the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force of Great Britain.

Resource Credit (For complete lines of poems.)


Of the three poems, which do you like best?

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© 2013 Marie Flint


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    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      I do like all of them, Chef. Each one rings a different chord for me. "With Rue" is nostalgic; "Trees" is blessed; and "High Flight" is spirited. Thank you for the read, comment, vote, and share. Blessings!

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 4 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for these three poems and your appraisal of each. They are classics in their own different ways and you've highlighted the essential poetic devices used by the poet to create atmosphere and meaning.

      I wonder which is your favoured poem? Or do you like them all!

      Votes and a share.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      It's funny you took as long as you did to find this hub! Blessings!

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 4 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      I just found this article and was pleased to know I "inspired" you to write this. You've chosen two of the world's most famous war poets, and among my favorites, too. All of the poems you have chosen have stood the test of time and will always be admired. Enjoyed and voted up!

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Jodah, Eiddwen, and BlossomSB, thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to read this hub.

      Blossom, in my research it was interesting to note that one of Magee's inspirations was another student who had received Rugby's Poetry Award 35 years prior. Magee even wrote a poem dedicated to his forerunner.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      All three poems - and poets - are special, but 'Trees' was one of my Mother's favourites. Rugby School has produced a number of notable poets and writers. I have enjoyed reading your hub and thank you for reviving the memory of these poets and their works.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      A wonderful hub ; told in a natural way and so interesting. Voting up for sure and wishing you a great weekend.


    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 4 years ago from Queensland Australia

      When I saw the names of the poets you had chosen to write the hub about Marie they didn't immediately ring a bell, but when I read each of the poems I realised that I was familiar with them all, especially Trees, which is quoted often. I loved all three poems, and enjoyed reading your critiques on each, and the stories associated. Voted up,

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      I chose these particular poems because I had memorized lines from them during my high school studies. Each poem strikes a deep emotional chord within me, and I really enjoyed researching about the poets' backgrounds and looking at their styles in accomplished details. ***

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      This hub was inspired by Writer Fox @ who wrote, "It's great to find another poetry lover here." in my Fan Mail.


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