06 April 2015

“Tree by Charity”: Robert Frost and the American Christmas


Adam Bryant Marshall



At the end of his book Christmas in America, historian Penne L. Restad concludes that, despite the sense that “profanation, secularization, commercialization, and prevalence throughout American life have delustered it…Christmas remains the most important holiday on our nation’s calendar.” Given the central place that Christmas has long held in America’s public life, then, one should hardly be surprised to find that Robert Frost, who consistently shaped his career to reflect many of the values and conflicts of his American reading public, made Christmas a recurring theme throughout his work. A deft careerist as well as a poet, Frost seems to have recognized the centrality of Christmastime to the national identity that provided a foundation for so much of his poetry. One sign of the place that Christmas held in Frost’s poetry, for instance, was his practice of producing an annual series of “Christmas cards”—small chapbooks featuring attractive woodcut illustrations of the wintry New England countryside alongside selections from his published verse. Over the four decades from 1929 to 1962 during which they were produced, these cards became useful tools for Frost's program of self-promotion—he would send them not only to friends and family members, but also to publishers, editors, and others upon whose support Frost's career depended.

In some instances, though, Christmas provided Frost with not only the occasion for his poetry, but also its subject matter; a handful of the poems from the Christmas cards, as well as from Frost’s earlier unpublished work, actually go so far as to take Christmas as their explicit subject. These poems include his early, unpublished poem “My Giving” and two of the “Christmas card” poems, Mountain Interval's “Christmas Trees” (1916), and A Witness Tree's “To a Young Wretch” (1942). What often surprises readers when they first encounter these poems, however, is their sharp departure from the sentimentality and saccharinity that have typically been associated with American Christmastime. Though they actively resist the rising tides of commercialism that were beginning to define Christmas celebration during the first half of the twentieth century, Frost's Christmas poems are not by any means religious or even celebratory. Rather, they are markedly ambivalent and bleak, presenting the holiday season as a locus of tension between the reclusive, solitary individual (a common figure throughout Frost’s poetry) and the interests and concerns of an increasingly consumptive and mercantile American Christmas.

The first of these poems, the unpublished “My Giving,” is an early illustration of Frost’s concern about the conditions of the working poor. In the poem, the speaker, presumably Frost himself, reflects on the plight of the impoverished at Christmastime, declaring:

I ask no merrier Christmas
Than the hungry bereft and cold shall know
            That night.
This is all I can give so that none shall want—
My heart and soul to share their depth of woe. (1-5)

In an attempt to conjure a sense of imagined commonality with the wintertime poor, Frost begins the poem by defining Christmas not as a religious or familial occasion, but as a primarily material event that casts in high relief the disparity between the destitute and the affluent. Viewing the pious injunction that the poor “be glad / That night” (16-7) as hypocritical at best and callous at worst, he assigns himself a program of protest and sympathetic solidarity:

Here I shall sit, the fire out, and croon
All the dismal and joy-forsaken airs,
Sole alone, and thirsty with them that thirst,
Hungry with them that hunger and are accurst. (9-12)

This commitment to an elected poverty, though a central component of the historical Christian observance of Christmas, nonetheless results in an inversion of the Christian ideal of “peace on earth.” As the poem concludes, he declares, “If it is woe on earth, woe let it be!” (14). Disavowing the notion that he has a “right” (18) to demand celebration from the destitute, he instead affirms their right to participate in the community of humanity—a step that requires that he “with them should be sad / That night” (20).

Admittedly, though, “My Giving” is early, rough work; as one of the seven poems that Frost sewed together in a booklet for Susan Hayes Ward as a Christmas present in 1911, it represents an immature poet still in the process of discovering his voice. Nevertheless, the poem provides a helpful glimpse at the embryonic concerns that would later flourish in “Christmas Trees” and “To a Young Wretch.” First, in sympathizing with the poverty-stricken, Frost tacitly opposes himself to the materialism that has created their impoverishment. Though the later poems approach such concerns with more cynicism than moral outrage, he is already establishing the connection between a Christmastime setting and a critique of the ills of commodification-run-rampant. Also, we see Frost’s first invocation of solitude as a means of negotiating the holiday’s conflicts; his vow to remain “Sole alone” (11) in his protest indicates a sense of spiritual and emotional alienation and a consequent retreat from the corrupting influence of material affluence. These two themes—Frost’s suspicion of capitalist expansion regardless of human expense and his concurrent desire to withdraw from an overly-materialistic society—are central in the later poems as well.
The second Christmas poem, “Christmas Trees,” expands upon these early ideas by imagining an encounter between a reclusive farmer and a man from the city who is interested in purchasing the trees on his land. As such, the poem seems primarily concerned with the commoditization of the natural world that Frost seems to have held as nearly sacred. At first, this dilemma appears to lie in the strain between rural and urban identities; the poem’s opening lines, “The city had withdrawn into itself / And left at last the country to the country” (1-2), suggest the narrator’s preference for the solitude of rural life, with the “at last” communicating a mixture of exasperation and reprieve as the narrator is temporarily relieved from the concerns of urbanity. This respite, however, is quickly disrupted when a stranger appears in the yard. Significantly, this stranger is identified as one who “looked the city” (5), even to the point that he becomes a representation of “the city come again / To look for something it had left behind / And could not do without and keep its Christmas.” Though he waits for the narrator and his family “in country fashion” (6), he is nonetheless revealed to be a city-dweller by the mercantile nature of his subsequent request: “He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees” (12).

From this point on, it becomes clear that the central difference between the farmer and the city-slicker is not merely that between city and country but, as Frost scholar John Robert Doyle, Jr. puts it, “a more intense and active conflict between buyer and seller.” To the urbanite, the trees are merely “Christmas trees,” a product that he can purchase here for pennies on the dollar and sell for a profit in town. The farmer, however, admits that he “hadn't thought of them as Christmas Trees” (15); rather, they are “My woods—the young fir balsams like a place / Where houses all are churches and have spires” (13-14). The comparison of the pines' peaks to the lofty spires of cathedrals indicates the farmer’s holy regard for them. Where the man from the city sees products to be sold, the farmer imagines a sacred architecture, perhaps even capable of becoming a means for the mind's ascent to the contemplation of things transcendent (such is at least the case in other tree-centered Frost poems, such as “Birches” or “Wild Grapes).

Given such an understanding, then, it is hardly surprising when Frost's narrator resists the offer, imbuing his trees with personalities to which he seems to hold himself accountable:

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. (16-20)

In imagining his trees' fate as one of homelessness or loss rather than one of material gain, the speaker implies a responsibility to the natural world that eclipses even that of human charity. Though he admits that he would “hate to hold my trees / As others hold theirs or refuse them,” his willingness to entertain the city-slicker's offer is born not out of a desire to share his resources, but out of a hesitation to keep them “Beyond the time of profitable growth” (21-3). Thus, though he hesitates, he agrees to submit them to the “trial by market” that “everything must come to” (24).

The middle of the poem then comprises an account of the negotiation between the two characters. As they wander through a landscape of winter pasture, the contrast between their divergent understandings of the trees becomes increasingly apparent. The farmer, uninterested in selling but bound by hospitality to entertain the offer, defensively downplays the trees’ economic worth:

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.’
 […]
                                                ‘You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.’ (25-32)

His companion, however, apparently ignoring the farmer’s caginess, presses for the opportunity to “look them over” (31), and even responds to “some lovelier one” (37) with a “That would do” flecked with “buyer’s moderation” (38). The dramatic tension reaches a peak when the prospective buyer makes the farmer an offer—thirty dollars for a full thousand trees—that draws them out of the world of the pasture and into the world of commerce. Only now, with the trees having been assigned a value in dollars and cents, does the farmer, perhaps affronted by the notion that something so dear could be sold for so little, conclude with absolute certainty, “I had never meant / to let him have them” (46-7).

In the remaining lines, the speaker, now more apparently the voice of the poet himself, turns his attention away from the scene and towards a sharp-witted epilogue directed towards his audience of Christmas card recipients. The end of the poem thus leaves the characters’ tense negotiation unresolved; we are given assurance of the farmer’s refusal, but not the opportunity to see it executed. In fact, the ingratiating tone of the poem’s final section actually heightens the tension, as Frost drolly panders to an audience comprised, at least in part, of publishers who, not unlike the city-slicker of the poem, may be interested in purchasing Frost’s own “trees”—that is, his poems. The poem thus gives witness to a troubling reality in which the farmer-poet’s desire to retain the lovely and the natural, whether trees or poems, is placed in opposition with the means of survival in an American economy based on consumption. Though the farmer of the poem refuses to “sell out,” the poem itself is a sobering emblem of compromise.

The later poem “To a Young Wretch” underscores this sense of compromise, albeit with a bit more grace than in “Christmas Trees.” The speaker in “To a Young Wretch” is yet another farmer-poet, possibly Frost, who witnesses a young man stealing onto his farm to cut down a spruce for use as a Christmas tree. While the premise is similar to that of “Christmas Trees,” however, the conflict is more sharply apparent—the speaker's enemy is not a city-slicker come to make a deal, but a brazen youth come to claim something that is not rightfully his, all in the name of holiday tradition. Again, Frost utilizes the same tactic of personification to emphasize the scandal of the tree's abduction, imagining it as a kind of feminine ward that the thief has swept off her feet:

You nick my spruce until its fiber cracks,
It gives up standing straight and goes down swishing.
You link in its arm and you lean
Across the light snow homeward smelling green. (2-6)

Disappointed by the tree's theft, he then considers how a monetary solution might have been found, insisting, “I could have bought you just as good a tree / To frizzle resin in a candle flame, / And what a saving t'would have meant to me” (7-9). Again, then, the conflict at the poem’s heart is that between economic and spiritual valuation: where the youth perceived an opportunity to save a buck, the speaker sees the loss of a valued symbol, one for which a purchased replacement would represent “a saving,” not an expense.

Until this point, “To a Young Wretch” seems to be expressing the same attitudes and values as “Christmas Trees”: the inability to place appropriate monetary value on natural symbols, the desire to preserve and maintain purity and possession of those symbols, and a sense of resentment towards outsiders who threaten those symbols' solitary enjoyment. From here, however, the trajectory veers from the cynical path established in “Christmas Trees.” Unlike the speaker of the earlier poem, the farmer-poet does not attempt to assert his right of ownership (perhaps because the tree is already out of his possession). Instead, he reconciles himself to the situation, admitting that “tree by charity is not the same / As tree by enterprise and expedition” (10-1). Despite being rooked, there is a part of the speaker who admires the thief, who sympathizes with his desire to chop a tree himself rather than accept one as a gift. He even goes on to recognize that their relationship is not that of perpetrator and victim, but simply that of two men with competing interests:

I must not spoil your Christmas with contrition.
It is your Christmases against my woods.
But even where, thus, opposing interests kill,
They are thought of as opposing goods
Oftener than as conflicting good and evil... (12-6)

By reframing his struggle with the “young wretch” as one of “opposing goods,” not “conflicting good and evil,” the speaker thus seems to begrudgingly come to terms with the reality that material desires simply may be inherently conflicting.

As the poem draws to a close, then, Frost's voice assumes an apprehensively charitable tone. He still imagines the tree as “a captive in your window bay” that has “lost its footing on my mountain slope / And lost the stars of heaven” (20-2), but he nevertheless offers up a sort of prayer containing what is perhaps Frost's sole allusion to the Christian understanding of Christmas: “may, oh, may / The symbol star it lifts against your ceiling / Help me accept its fate with Christmas feeling” (ll. 23-4). While still ruffled by the theft, the speaker of the final stanza (and, indeed, the Frost of this final poem) seems to have reached an uneasy truce with the conflicts surrounding the Christmas season. Though the holiday still serves as a battleground between the interests of farmer and city-dweller, merchant and poet, old and young, it also contains a germ of charity: a challenge to love the neighbor, enemy though he be.

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