Sunday, December 16, 2007

Christmas Trees by Robert Frost

Christmas Trees

The city had withdrawn into itself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.
--Robert Frost

Here is a poem from Robert Frost, written in free verse. Some of the time, it's hard for me to differentiate this type of poetry from prettily formatted prose, but this one feels very like a poem to me. I was looking up the definition of free verse (to make sure I wasn't confusing it with blank verse, which is what Shakespeare generally used for his plays), and found this definition on a page compiled by Google's very useful new define feature: poetry without any fixed pattern of meter, rhythm, or rhyme, but which instead exhibits its own natural rhythms, sound patterns, and seemingly arbitrary principles of form.

This definition finally helped me make sense of what the difference is. This type of poetry is not formless -- the language used is obviously formal and poetic in a way that prose simply wouldn't use -- it's just form based on something other than strict meter. Frost is aware of the rhythm of his words. Take this sentence fragment, "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." Nobody writing prose would use the phrase "who looked the city" instead of "who looked like he came from the city," but Frost's phrase fits better into the space he wanted to use.

The message of this poem reminds me of something I was thinking about earlier this week. A mailing list I subscribe to has been sending out a lot of "Pay it Forward" stories to inspire us for the holidays. They generally fall into two categories. The first go something like: I saw somebody who looked like they could use some extra cash for food, movie tickets, Christmas presents etc, so I gave them some extra I had, and they looked so very grateful, it made my week. The second category has longer stories, that generally start off with somebody telling why they were in desperate financial straits a few years ago (newly divorced, widowed, lost their job, had medical bills, etc), then how horrible they felt about not being able to provide any sort of Christmas for their young children, and how impossible it was going to be to explain why Santa missed their house, and ends by telling how some anonymous stranger showed up with more than they ever could have hoped for, and saved Christmas.

Now, I don't blame these women for being in dire financial straits--heaven knows we could all end up being there. I don't blame them for wanting to give their children several nice presents--I certainly want to give my family nice things. What bothers me is that they invariably say that there would have been no Christmas -- no tree, no decorations, and not a single present -- without the anonymous benefactor. I'm sorry, but no matter how desperate your financial straits are, you can put together some kind of Christmas if you want to. You can get a small Christmas tree at any dollar store (and cheaper, if you're willing to look hard or scrounge for one). You can decorate it with paper cutouts, costume jewelry, or any number of other things you can find around the house if you don't already own some Christmas ornaments. By really looking at a couple of dollar stores or thrift shops, you can find a decent present for someone of any age for a dollar or less. It's not much, but it is something. Old clothes and toys that are sitting around the house could be cannibalized or refurbished to become presents for free. So a family of four could have some kind of Christmas with presents under the tree for less than five dollars. I can't believe that these women couldn't come up with five dollars no matter how bad things were. Nobody ends up with exactly zero left at the end of the month, and if they had less than zero, then five dollars kept out of some bill that wouldn't be paid in full anyway would be neither here nor there. It makes me sad to think that there are so many people out there with so little imagination that they couldn't come up with a way to have some Christmas.


  1. I love our family tradition (that isn't every year anymore) of getting each other library books. This can be done on any budget, and makes the unwrapping last a lot longer! I know a lot of people think it's odd, and it is, but it's a fun way to show your family that you care by thoughtfully choosing books that you know they will enjoy or be meaningful for some reason. And yes, I think there is always a way to make any day special for free. It just takes some effort.

  2. Thanks Karen. I usually read the poems without looking at the author's name first to see if I could guess who it was. I guessed Frost on this one even tho' I don't remember ever having read it. And I was so very glad that he didn't sell his trees.
    Thirty dollars sounds like 30 pieces of silver in this instance.