Saturday, December 21, 2019

Christmas Trees

Robert Frost (1874–1963)
From Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays

Illustrations for two of Robert Frost’s annual Christmas cards, both inscribed to Dartmouth librarian Harold Goddard Rugg. The card on the left, sent in 1941, features a woodcut by J. J. Lankes that was commissioned (but not used) for Frost’s forthcoming collection A Witness Tree. The inscription reads: “Picture of a Witness Tree / As in my book about to be / Which see.” The 1942 card on the right is adorned with a hand-colored illustration by J. O’Hara Cosgrave. Images and details courtesy of the blog of the Rauner Library at Dartmouth College.
In 1947 a student from the University of Maine, N. Arthur Bleau, attended a lecture Robert Frost gave at Bowdoin College. During the Q&A session Bleau asked Frost to name his favorite poem, and the poet declined to answer. But afterward Frost spoke to the young man privately and said, “I’d have to say ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is that poem.” Frost then related an anecdote, which Bleau recorded in an essay thirty years later.

In one of the early years of the century, three days before Christmas on the night of the solstice (in the poem, “The darkest evening of the year”), Frost hitched up his horse to the sleigh and, with a snowstorm on the horizon, journeyed two miles to Derry Village, New Hampshire, to sell some farm produce so he could buy Christmas presents for the children. Unable to sell anything, he returned home. “It had started to snow, and his heart grew heavier with each step of the horse.”
Around the next bend in the road, near the woods, they would come into view of the house. He knew the family was anxiously awaiting him. How could he face them? What could he possibly say or do to spare them the disappointment he felt?

They entered the sweep of the bend. The horse slowed down and then stopped. It knew what he had to do. He had to cry, and he did. I recall the very words he spoke. “I just sat there and bawled like a baby”—until there were no more tears.
In a postscript to the essay, Frost’s daughter Lesley confirmed the story, which her father had told her separately, also during the 1940s, almost “word for word” as it was told to Bleau.

Some scholars and critics have cast doubt on whether such an incident was really the primary inspiration for the poem—still one of Frost’s most famous—or if it ever even occurred. In a recent book containing an extensive analysis of “Stopping by Woods,” William Logan reports that he scanned through Frost family journals and letters from the period, which often list the “cornucopia” of presents given each year to the children, and even pored over weather records in Derry from 1900 to 1910; he concludes that, at best, the anecdote was greatly embellished. “He was a Yankee fabulist, known to stretch a blanket, his myths carefully nursed, elaborated, curated.” Yet Logan notes at the outset that, for an understanding of the work, the “tale is not particularly revealing, because the elements not in the poem—the failed journey to market, the unbought presents, the horse’s decision to halt (which would change the implication of the title), the tears—are not necessary. Rather, they provide to the tone and tenor of criticism Frost’s shrewdness in knowing what to leave out.”

What the story does confirm, though, is the importance of Christmas to Frost and his family. Details of the elaborate holiday festivities pervade their diaries and letters, weeks before—and after—the occasion each year. His daughter Lesley later recalled:
I doubt whether any children, in any clime, in any Christian land, could have anticipated the joy of Christmas Eve and Christmas dawn (early dawn!) with any more excitement than was felt by the four Frost children. . . . Christmas was for us a long-drawn-out anticipation. It began as early as October-November.
The denouement and memories continued well into the following year. In mid-January 1907 seven-year-old Lesley wrote a journal entry entitled “Papa Goes to See Santa Claus,” describing how, several days before Christmas, her father hiked off into the woods on their farm to get the tree, telling the children he was going to visit Santa. When he came home, “he would not tell us what Santa Claus said.” It was only on Christmas Day that they realized what he had been doing.
An early version of “Christmas Trees,”
sent as a holiday greeting to Louis Untermeyer
in December 1915 and illustrated by Frost’s
daughter Lesley. Library of Congress.
Click to enlarge.

In the summer of 1915, the family moved to Franconia, New Hampshire, where the trees on and around Frost’s land became an essential part of the family’s daily lives—and of Frost’s poetry. As Lesley wrote that year to a friend in England: “We have enough of Christmas trees this year, for we have many acres of lovely firs of different sizes. I wish we could bring one in with the heavy snow on its branches.” In December the trees provided her and her father with the inspiration for Christmas letters they sent to friends and neighbors. Frost wrote by hand a draft of a new poem, “Christmas Trees,” while Lesley illustrated the top of the each first page. Frost later told a local reporter, “The poem was written on Christmas morning, and it was written on the spur of the moment.” Yet the only two extant copies—one to the nearby Tilley family, dated December 19, and the other to Louis Untermeyer on Christmas Eve—indicate that the poem was written at least a week earlier. Both letter-poems are signed “from Robert Frost and the children” with a postscript: “And Mrs Frost wishes to be remembered though she had no part in this nonsense.” The following year Frost revised the poem and included it as the second selection in his third collection, Mountain Interval. It imagines a visit by a stranger from the city looking to buy all the “lovely firs of different sizes” Lesley had mentioned in the letter to her friend.

The poem had a subsequent life as a Christmas greeting card. In 1929 Joseph Blumenthal, owner of the Spiral Press, with the permission of Frost’s publisher, used “Christmas Trees” for the firm’s annual card. Frost, however, did not learn of the project until after the booklets had been printed, and he gently insisted on receiving a few of the 275 copies to send to his own friends. Five years later, in 1934, Frost and Blumenthal agreed to work together to produce annual limited editions of similar Christmas chapbooks, each with a new poem by Frost and illustrated by a well-known artist. These “cards” (which ranged in size from 6 to 20 pages) grew in popularity among friends, family, and collectors over the years; the press run for the final, not-really-limited-edition chapbook, published the Christmas before Frost’s death in January 1963, topped 17,000 copies. Two covers from the series are shown above, and below we present the version of “Christmas Trees” that appeared in Mountain Interval.

*   *   *
For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.
You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

Christmas Trees
A Christmas Circular Letter

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine,
I said, ‘There aren’t enough to be worth while.’

‘I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.’

                                                 ‘You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.’
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded ‘Yes’ to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, ‘That would do.’
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north.

                                                 He said, ‘A thousand.’
‘A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?’

He felt some need of softening that to me:
‘A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.’

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

Originally published in Mountain Interval (1916).