There are currently at least two schools of thought on Robert Frost. There is the camp that treats Frost as though he is the FOREMOST AMERICAN POET OF ALL TIME. That point of view, which held sway through a good deal of the twentieth century, is giving way to the camp that despises him as a hypocrite, a shyster, a huckster, and overrated.
I personally fall somewhere in between. Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot (yes, technically a Missourian; he adopted his droll RP in mid-life) were better, more important poets. Matthew Arnold and Hart Crane have probably been more influential. And the Beats were certainly cooler.
But for getting poetry into the hearts and minds of people who don’t generally read poetry, you can’t beat Robert Frost.
Frost was, if anything, a master propagandist. He came to represent the quintessential New Englander: reserved, witty, dripping with common sense and the sort of bootstrapping hardy Americanism also exploited by Norman Rockwell. His poems generally rhymed and were tailor-made for school room recitations. And he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory at Kennedy’s inauguration, even though the sun’s glare that day prevented him from reading the poem he had specially composed for the occasion.
But anyone so well-loved in this country will inevitably be deconstructed, and whole books have been devoted to undermining the image Frost so carefully cultivated. Various biographers have portrayed him as a cruel philanderer, an uninvolved, un-loving father, and, according to Jeffrey Myers, a “mean old bastard.” The cult of hatred for Robert Frost is, in literary circles, about as popular as his cult of personality is outside them.
Frost wrote prolifically, and although a great deal of his work was published, not all of it is worth reading. Fame can work against a writer; some things should not be rushed to print. But poems like “Home Burial“ and “After Apple Picking” are sublime. In my humble opinion, anyway.
In any event, if there is a poet to associate with Christmas, and particularly a New England, Currier and Ives sort of Christmas, it’s Frost. Read carefully, though, these poems are not as greeting-card cheery as they initially appear. Enough has been written about the dark, suicide-y side of “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” For this Monday Morning Hearsay instead, a poem about the deceptiveness of worth.
(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The city had withdrawn into itself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.
Robert Frost, “Christmas Trees,” from The Poetry of Robert Frost (Edward Connery Lathem, ed.) Henry Holt & Co. (1969)