Words have power; he'd always believed that. But until it happened to him, he didn't realize just how much power.
Just after he'd written a poem about Dawn striding out to wake a dewy farm, monster footprints shook his family's modest home. He peered out his window to find the source of the noise and saw a great glowing giant, carrying birds that twittered and laughed. Out in the barn, the cows and sheep, rather than mooing and baaing as one might expect, shouted loudly, "It is day!" This nonsense was, he realized, a literal interpretation of his poem, in which he had used one of his favorite literary devices, pathetic fallacy.
Soon, more such images came to life before his eyes. The trees began pressing actual mouths to earthen breasts to drink, their branches converted to arms which raised to heaven in joyful prayer. While it had sounded lovely on paper, in person it was just a bit terrifying.
Before long, the whole landscape was abuzz: the nearby brook whispering; the sky turned into a frail blue butterfly, greeted by an admiring earth; and the distant mountain snoring like a behemoth king with a sleep disorder. Skies weeping, flowers turning their faces gratefully to the sun, squirrels playing like actual children, and all of them wondering aloud about their place in the universe. It was dreadful.
He shut his window to shut out the racket, but even that did not solve the problem. For then, the everyday objects around him came to life. Before you knew it, everything was self-aware: floors groaning, lanterns glowing serenely, and the stair creaking like squeaking mice, chasing after him as he ran upstairs.
"Do you hear it?" he called to his wife, Aline, in bed nursing their newborn son. "Do you hear how the world is alive with voices? The earth and trees shuddering to life with movement?"
A fellow poet, she merely smiled gently. "I hear it, my love. The world is blessing us as we welcome our boy. Our hearts, so recently closed with grief, can now open again to love and hope." Only 12 days previously, they had lost their 5-year-old daughter, Rose.
Vigorously, he shook his head. "No, my... love," he panted, catching himself just the moment before calling her his dove. "I mean it really is all coming to life: the trees, the earth, the very mountains rise up and walk."
Aline regarded him strangely. "It's been a troublesome two weeks, and you have barely slept. Get some rest now, and you'll feel better."
But his anxious mind would not pause long enough to allow him to sleep, so he shut himself into his study, where he knew he would find him: Martin, the ghost of a dear family friend he'd admired. Up until this day, he'd only seen him in memory's halls, but since he'd written his apparition into a poem, the specter himself appeared.
The kindly look on his ghost-friend's face soothed Joyce's anxiety. When the ghost asked him what was the matter, he gushed out the story, as rapidly as any brook he'd once mistakenly described as "babbling." But what to do now? How to remedy the illness that seemingly affected him alone?
Martin leaned on his polished walking stick and pondered. "You may not like my advice, friend." Though his face was solemn, there was a playful gleam in his eye. "As you wrote so aptly about me, you must take pleasure where you can. From the fleck of sunlight in the street to the horse, the book, the girl who smiles at you, appreciate and write what you see, my boy. What you see."
And with that he vanished in a puff of metaphor.
In his short days after this very odd encounter, Joyce took this lesson to heart. Sometimes, he still could not refrain from falling back on his old habits, but he was rudely reminded of the dangers of doing so while riding a frighteningly clamorous train through a profane countryside on his way to basic training.
Joyce had enlisted to fight in the Great War within days of the United States joining the fray. Despite his mathematical skills and college education, which guaranteed him a safe post as a commissioned officer away from the front, he volunteered for a fighting regiment. In battle after battle, he gained a reputation for coolness and bravery under fire.
After each fray, as much as his tired mind would allow, he wrote some brief prose sketches and poems, drawn primarily from the images of his fallen brothers-in-arms, with gravestones and sadness falling away into heavenly glory. This was, he realized, the most important thing he could do for his friends: to write them an afterlife he truly believed would come true, through the magic of his words.
And so, one day, as he'd gone ahead to scout for the Germans, he was not a bit surprised to find himself looking down upon a vast heavenly landscape, as vivid as anything he'd written. He walked off into the haze, leaving his body behind and marveling at all he saw.
As anyone knows who's ever heard me grouse about it, pathetic fallacy is one of my pet peeves. While effective in moderation, it is often overblown to the point of ridiculousness. A case in point, the famous poem "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer, which begins with the oft-quoted line "I think I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree." Saccharine as that line is, the poem only gets worse from there.
But as I delved into Kilmer's work and his life, I began to sympathize with this man: so young, so determined to see beauty in everything. He was only 31 when he died in battle during World War I. While I still dislike most of his poetry, I admire his earnestness, his dedication, and his sincere belief in the underlying benevolent spirit of the earth and all that resides here.
Note: I've taken some liberties with the chronology of his poems.