"I can't help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas."
So ends the first of Robert Frost's Christmas "cards," chapbooks printed annually by Spiral Press from 1929 to 1962. Each year, Frost would select a poem, often writing an original piece for the occasion, and send it to his friends and loved ones—and his publisher's friends and loved ones. Now collectors' items, these annual cards started out simply as a way for Frost to honor the winter season with a poem.
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, requesting 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.
All told, Blumenthal printed only 275 copies of the first greeting, though the last in the series—"The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics, the Commentators Merely by Statistics"—came out in an edition of 16,555 copies. Most years, the cards were limited to a small, intimate number.
Due to the poem's title, "Christmas Trees" could be mistaken for a simple poem, marked by clichéd holiday sentiment, but the poem begins: "The city had withdrawn into itself / And left at last the country to the country." This couplet, a remarkable and often recited bit of verse, resists the standard notions of holiday cheer. Here, the city condenses, drawing back like an old miser from (or into?) the celebration, paired with the country's satisfaction. There is a charged landscape, a precise meter, and a rigor to the rest of the work that does not limit the piece to a "holiday greeting."
In this way, "Christmas Trees" establishes Frost's series as both a charming holiday tradition and, with the help of Blumenthal, a collection of well-crafted works of art. That becomes more obvious when looking at the full collection, which features other classic poems by Frost, including "Birches," "A Boy's Will," and "The Wood-Pile" (pictured below).
Robert Frost's role in the popular American psyche might lead one to expect to find his name in any proper Christmas anthology. At the same time, his often-anthologized "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is not necessarily "cheery":
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The final couplet is more haunting than typical seasonal verse. Perhaps that's what makes these cards so interesting. They are at once playful, serious, and printed in a limited letterpress edition that cuts past much of the gloss of Christmas.
In a way, they enact Frost's dictum, that "One who concerns himself with [the sound of sense] more than the subject is an artist."
On Display: Robert Frost's Christmas Cards
December 2 - January 19
Poets House, New York City
6 p.m. - 8 p.m.
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