None of the modernist poets I am discussing at present produced what might be called traditional Christmas poems. My attention is drawn to them by the advent of Christmas on this, the longest night of the year.[i] So once again I interrupt myself in the stately progress of this blog to be diverted by gems glittering in the garden. But, as I said, these select modernists did not produce traditional Christmas poems.[ii]
Robert Frost came closest, in writing a poem a year to send out for Christmas. But even that idea was imposed on him, according to the web-site of the Academy of American Poets, in their essay “Robert Frost’s Christmas Cards”:
As reported in the New York Times, Joseph Blumenthal, who headed Spiral Press from 1926 to 1971, had been working on a separate edition of Frost’s poetry in 1929 when, without the poet’s knowledge, he printed 250 copies—for his wife and a small group of colleagues—of a letterpress chapbook of Frost’s early poem “Christmas Trees.” When the poet saw the publication, his first response was to contact Blumenthal and request a few copies to send out to his own family members: “My sympathies have been enlisted on the side of small presses and hand setting. My heart will be with you in your work.” The annual tradition was born.[iii]
The poem “Christmas Trees” was originally published in Mountain Interval, which was published by Henry Holt on November 27th, 1916. It seems to me a representative poem of Frost for many reasons, not least for its colloquial tone, the Yankee persona, and its careful use of iambic pentameter. But it is no slave to iambic pentameter. One, and possibly two, lines are clearly not iambic pentameter. See if you can pick them out as you read:
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The city had withdrawn into itself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.[iv]
I first read this poem, to the best of my recollection, in Donetsk, Ukraine, while looking for “The Road Not Taken” as an example of how to mis-read a poem, one I thought the students in the English class might be familiar with. It is harder to mis-read this poem, in part because of the anger tempering its observations, as in the phrase “The trial by market everything must come to”. The speaker is willing to admit that even his trees have a price, just not one so niggardly.
T. S. Eliot wrote more overtly Christian poetry than Frost, but even his was tinged by the cynicism occasioned by the War to End All Wars. Eliot wrote this unconventional poem about the three wise guys. I’ve often wondered whether he knew the parody of “We Three King of Orient Are” that I had learned with its lines about “trying to smoke a rubber cigar” (which I learned during a Christmas visit to my mother’s parents’ house, from my cousins). Do you find, as I do, some hint of that here?
Journey of the Magi
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.[v]
This is a departure from Eliot’s earlier reliance on iambic rhythms, as in the line “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,” essentially anapæstic. But that final unstressed syllable throws the count for a loop. Eliot has translated his rhythms from Prufrock and Other Observations into the rougher rhythms one might expect from galled, sore-footed, refractory camels — but still walking.
Pound was the least Christian of the three, but in “Histrion,” from his second self-published collection A Quinzaine for this Yule, even he could not resist the matter of Christ:
No man hath dared to write this thing as yet,
And yet I know, how that the souls of all men great
At times pass through us,
And we are melted into them, and are not
Save reflexions of their souls.
Thus am I Dante for a space and am
One François Villon, ballad-lord and thief
Or am such holy ones I may not write,
Lest blasphemy be writ against my name;
This for an instant and the flame is gone.
’Tis as in midmost us there glows a sphere
Translucent, molten gold, that is the “I”
And into this some form projects itself:
Christus, or John, or eke the Florentine;
And as the clear space is not if a form’s
So cease we from all being for the time,
And these, the Masters of the Soul, live on.[vi]
This might be a poem inspired by a quantum view of the universe, although I doubt that Pound knew anything of that in 1908, when he published A Quinzaine for this Yule. His view of the Christus would become both more literal and more physical in such poems as “The Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” wherein he undertakes the kind of fake folk style that John Mason Neale abused in his carol Good King Wenceslas in 1853.[vii] It seems to me a bit odd that one of the leading modernists in American poetry had turned for his models not only to Chinese and Japanese poetry, but to the poems and persons of Medieval Europe, almost as if, unlike Frost, he found nothing of note in his contemporary world.
And, lest you conclude that only these men were unconventional in their regard of Christmas, I can’t resist giving the final word to a woman:
The Savior must have been
A docile Gentleman,
To come so far, so cold a Day,
For Little “Fellow men.”
The Road to Bethlehem
Since He and I were Boys,
Was leveled, but for that ’twould be
A rugged Billion Miles —[viii]
That is quite a distance from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
As I said in last month’s post, next time I want to introduce three women whose abilities parallel these gentlemen’s: Hilda Doolittle, Amy Lowell and Sara Teasdale. These women were ardent modernists, but in each case they broke with the men who led the way, especially with Pound. See you next month.
But hold on, I hear you say. Hasn’t it ever been thus?
[i] I don’t hold with the typical advent calendar, which has the Christmas season beginning with the 4th Sunday before Christmas, or, this year, with Christmas falling on a Sunday, the 27th of November. I think that we are lagging behind in observing the birth of Christ on December 25th, instead of, say, a date early in the spring, such as April 6th, which is much closer to the Vernal Equinox than to the Winter Solstice. I would, in fact, gladly share my birthday, April 15th, if it wouldn’t profane the holiday even more than we have thus far done.
[ii] As represented by, say, Christmas songs like “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” As a kid I wondered where that was.
[iii] As reported in https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/robert-frosts-christmas-cards, accessed 21 December 2016.
[iv] Collected poems, prose, & plays / Robert Frost. – New York : Library of America, c1995, pp. 103-105. The clearly hexametric line is six lines from the end. Where is the other?
[v] The complete poems and plays. 1909-1950 / T. S. Eliot. – New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, c1962, pp. 68-69.
[vi] Poems and Translations / Ezra Pound. – New York : Library of America, c2003, p. 80.
[viii] Emily Dickinson’s poems, as she preserved them / edited by Cristanne Miller. – Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016, p. 629 — in the section titled “Loose poems.”