It’s December, and in keeping with the season, I had planned on a post celebrating Robert Frost’s poem “Christmas Trees”. Instead, however, I found myself on an inquiry path on a Frost holiday tradition.
I first inquired, what is the story behind Frost’s poem Christmas Trees?
The poem opens:
The city had withdrawn into itself And left at last the country to the country; When between whirls of snow not come to lie And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove A stranger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.
The stranger asks to purchase Frost’s trees:
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.”
Rather than sell them, Frost conclusion is more metaphorical:
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.
I found (on Poets.org) that beginning in 1929, Frost and the printer Joseph Blumenthal partnered up to produce beautifully illustrated Christmas cards featuring Frost’s poetry. I was surprised to discover, as reported in the NYTimes, Blumenthal, who ran the Spiral Press of New York, created the first card without Frost’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’.”
A slideshow of the cards is available on the NYTimes website. This tradition continued for another 30 years, and the Frost-Blumenthal productions were holiday “greetings” in the form of chapbooks.
I then needed to inquire, why a chapbook?
I discovered that a chapbook was historically “a small pamphlet containing tales, ballads, or tracts, sold by peddlers” in contrast to its current contemporary meaning, “a small paperback booklet, typically containing poems or fiction.” These chapbooks are very simple, stapled in the center, with some illustrated covers.
The Blog Poetry and Popular Culture posted their inquiry about the chapbooks as well:
- What was the annual press run?
- Did the press have a list of subscribers committed to buying a set every year, and how much money did Blumenthal and Frost eventually make off of the limited editions?
I did find out on the Poets.org site that Blumenthal printed 275 copies of the first greeting, and the last, “The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics, the Commentators Merely by Statistics” had an edition run of 16,555 copies. There was no collective information on the money exchanged, other than the note that the cards can sometimes be found for purchase on E-bay (example).
That led me to inquire, what other poems did Frost place into chapbooks?
Oher poems sent as chapbooks were “Birches,” “A Boy’s Will,” and “The Wood-Pile”. There was an exhibit of the chapbooks in 2012 at the Pequot Library in Southport, CT. The exhibit was titled “Good Wishes from Robert Frost” – a set of 19 chapbooks loaned by Elinor Wilber, granddaughter of the celebrated American poet Robert Frost. Several have a personal inscription from Frost to Elinor and her husband. A video showing these chapbooks is available here:
The video ends with a copy handwritten by Frost of his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
That led me to seek out a better copy of this manuscript, and my path of inquiry took me to the Library of Congress where there is a photo of the poem in its entirety:
This inquiry led me a different publisher. Frost’s Snow to Snow, was issued by in 1936 by Henry Holt & Company. They published twelve of Frost’s verses, each one corresponding to a month of the year and ending with December’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
So how does one find out what the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” means?
I then decided to chase down the popular story (one that I have often repeated without checking its veracity) that Frost was in the audience of group of people listening to a lecture about the meaning of this poem.
I had heard that “The poem is about death,” the lecturer supposedly reported, and he continued for many minutes pointing out all the images related to death:”darkest evening” and “sleep”. At the end of the lecture, there was an opportunity for questions and comments from the audience. Now (according to the rumor), Frost patiently waited his turn, and then firmly stated: “I wrote that poem. It is not about death. I was going home in the snow.”
As much fun as that rumored story is….I could not find anything to confirm it happening. I am chagrined that I have kept the rumor going.
However, I was relieved to find some form of confirmation in quotes from a book: Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism with quotes from Reginald Cook regarding this poem:
- “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.”…
- “I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
- When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”
On this path of inquiry, I also discovered a video of Frost reading this poem. The introduction is by the radio host Garrison Keillor:
My final thought on Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was of the picture book illustrated by Susan Jeffers that I read to my boys as part of our holiday preparation. The man in her rendition bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus and the little harness bells look very festive. I know Jeffers makes the poem more child-friendly than alternative interpretations!
Finally, to sum up Frost’s attitude towards analysis, in a letter to Louis Untermeyer (1964) in Robert Frost: A Backward Look, Frost writes:
You’ve often heard me say – perhaps too often – that poetry is what is lost in translation. It is also what is lost in interpretation. That little poem means just what it says and it says what it means, nothing less but nothing more.
Or, here is a more unceremonious statement in his own voice:
Therefore, on this post I offer no translations…and no interpretations. Here are discoveries-and at least one correction- on my inquiry journey of the winter poems of the aptly named Frost.