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Robert Frost's "Christmas Trees"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Fir Trees in the Snow

Introduction and Text of Poem

Robert Frost's poem, "Christmas Trees," features two speakers. The poem is essentially a short play (playlet), and Frost employed this form in many of his most famous poems, such a "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Witch of Coos," and "The Fear."

Christmas Trees

(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The city had withdrawn into itself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.

Reading of Frost's "Christmas Trees"

Commentary

This dialogue poem offers a little drama, featuring a country man mulling over whether to sell off some of his fir trees to a city merchant looking for Christmas trees to sell in the city.

First Movement: Subject for a Christmas 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,

It is winter just before Christmas and the speaker is getting ready to write his Christmas letters to friends, when a city fellow shows up looking to buy Christmas trees to sell. The country fellow sizes up the city fellow by saying, "there drove / A stranger to our yard, who looked the city."

The speaker can tell just by looking at the man that he is a city dweller. The speaker soon learns why the city man is there. The latter is looking for Christmas trees, "He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees." The speaker then describes his grove of fir 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."

The speaker makes it clear to the reader that he had no intention of selling them, but he does not make that clear to the city merchant. The speaker does consider the advantage of selling some of them.

Second Movement: Musing About Selling Trees

"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."

While still appearing to be mulling over the possibility of selling them, the speaker thinks it very unlikely, but he agrees to let the man look over his grove. The speaker admits that he might have been doing this just to get a compliment about his property. So he says to the merchant, leading him on: "There aren't enough to be worth while." The merchant then says he would like to look at them to see what they thinks.

The speaker then replies that it is fine for the man to look at them, "But don't expect I'm going to let you have them." The speaker then describes his tree growth as "some in clumps too close." Some of the trees have been growing too close to one another, and that has rendered them lopsided and thus unfit for decorating. But there were others that stand alone with "equal boughs / All round and round." The man then decides that there are a thousand trees that he would be interested in, and the speaker then wants to know the price.

Third Movement: Seriously, Three Cents a Piece?

"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.

The speaker seems surprised that the city man estimates that there are a thousand trees that he might want. After hearing the price, "A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars," the speaker lets the reader know that at the point he knew he never meant to sell them. The city merchant then drops out of the dialogue, leaving it a mystery exactly how the speaker said no and what the man's response might have been. The speaker does say what he believed about haggling over price: "Never show surprise!"

The speaker then asserts that such a low price "seemed so small beside / The extent of pasture I should strip." Laying his land bare for three cents a tree did not seem worth the effort. And he knew that the merchant would sell the trees for a dollar each.

Fourth Movement: Rather Send Them to Friends

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.

The speaker then avers that he would be sending his Christmas letter to some of those city friends who would have to pay that dollar for his Christmas trees, and the speaker could not square that with his conscience.

So in his letter the speaker recounts the whole potential business transaction and concludes, "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

Life Sketch of Robert Frost

Robert Frost's father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist, living in San Fransisco, California, when Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874; Robert's mother, Isabelle, was an immigrant from Scotland. The young Frost spent eleven years of his childhood in San Fransisco. After his father died of tuberculosis, Robert's mother moved the family, including his sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived with Robert's paternal grandparents.

Robert graduated in 1892 from Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife, Elinor White, served as co-valedictorians. Robert thEn made his first attempt to attend college at Dartmouth College; after only a few months, he returned to Lawrence and began working a series of part-time jobs.

Elinor White, who was Robert's high school sweetheart, was attending St. Lawrence University when Robert proposed to her. She turned him down because she wanted to finish college before marrying. Robert then relocated to Virginia, and then after returning to Lawrence, he again to proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education. The two married on December 19, 1895. Their first child, Eliot, was born the following year.

Robert then made another attempt to attend college; in 1897, he enrolled in Harvard University, but because of health issues, he had to leave school again. Robert rejoined his wife in Lawrence, and their second child Lesley was born in 1899 . The family then moved to a New Hampshire farm that Robert's grandparents had acquired for him. Thus, Robert's farming phase commenced as he attempted to farm the land and continue his writing. His first poem to appear in print, “My Butterfly," had been published on November 8, 1894, in The Independent, a New York newspaper.

The next twelve years proved a difficult time in Frost's personal life, but a fertile one for his writing. The Frosts' first child, Eliot, died in 1900 of cholera. The couple, however, went on to have four more children, each of which suffered from mental illness to suicide. The couple's farming endeavors continued to result in unsuccessful attempts. Frost became well adjusted to rustic life, despite his miserable failure as a farmer.

Frost's writing life took off in a splendid fashion, and the rural influence on his poems would later set the tone and style for all of his works. However, despite the success of his individual published poems, such "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," he could not find a publisher for his collections of poems.

Relocation to England

It was because of his failure to find a publisher for his collections of poems that Frost sold the New Hampshire farm and moved his family to England in 1912. This moved proved to be life-line for the young poet. At age 38, he secured a publisher in England for his collection, A Boy's Will, and soon after North of Boston.

In addition to finding a publisher for his two books, Frost became acquainted with Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two important poets of the day. Both Pound and Thomas reviewed Frost's two book favorably, and thus Frost's career as a poet moved forward.

Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas was especially important, and Frost has remarked that the long walks taken by the two poet/friends had influenced his writing in a marvelously positive manner. Frost has credited Thomas for his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," which was sparked by Thomas' attitude regarding not being able to take two different paths on their long walks.

Returning to America

After World War 1 broke out in Europe, the Frosts set sail back to the United States. The brief sojourn in England had had useful consequences for the poet's reputation, even back in his native country. American Publisher, Henry Holt, picked up Frost's earlier books, and then come out with his third, Mountain Interval, a collection that had been written while Frost was still residing in England.

Frost was treated to the delicious situation of having the same journals, such as The Atlantic, soliciting his work, even though they had rejected that same work a couple of years earlier.

The Frosts once again became owners of a farm located in Franconia, New Hampshire, which they purchased in 1915. The end of their traveling days were over, and Frost continued his writing career, as he taught intermittently at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and particularly Amherst College, where he taught regularly from 1916 until 1938. Amherst's main library is now the Robert Frost Library, honoring the long-time educator and poet. He also spent most summers teaching English at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Frost never completed a college degree, but over his entire lifetime, the revered poet accumulated more than forty honorary degrees. He also won the Pulitzer Prize four times for his books, New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree.

Frost considered himself a "lone wolf" in the world of poetry because he did not follow any literary movements. His only influence was the human condition in a world of duality. He did not pretend to explain that condition; he only sought to create little dramas to reveal the nature of the emotional life of a human being.

Questions & Answers

Question: How do the speaker and the city stranger value the trees differently?

Answer: The city fellow is a businessman, who wants to acquire trees to sell at Christmas time. The speaker owns the land on which the trees grow, and he does no want to strip his land of the trees.

Question: What is the speaker explaining in the last three lines "Christmas Trees"?

Answer: The speaker is averring that he would be sending his Christmas letter to some of those city friends, who would have to pay a dollar for his Christmas trees, if he had sold them to the city merchant, and the speaker could not square that with his conscience. Thus, in his letter the speaker recounts the whole potential business transaction.

Question: What does the line in Robert Frost's "Christmas Trees", "The trial by market everything must come to," mean?

Answer: The line, "The trial by market everything must come to," refers to market forces that dictate the value of a commodity.

Question: What are the figures of speech used in lines 14 and 15?

Answer: Line 14, "Where houses all are churches and have spires," employs a metaphor. Line 15 is literal.

Question: What does it mean when it says “the city had left the country to the country”?

Answer: City visitors to the county had returned to the city leaving the country folks to return to their country ways.

Question: What reason does the speaker in Robert Frost's "Christmas Trees" give to the city man, for his hesitation over selling?

Answer: The speaker says there are not enough trees to make it worthwhile to sell them.

Question: What does the speaker mean when he says that the man "looked the city"?

Answer: He means the man looked like a city dweller.

Question: In Frost's "Christmas Trees," the city man tells the speaker that he has one thousand sell-able trees on his property. Does this surprise the speaker?

Answer: That number seems to surprise the speaker, who exclaims, "A thousand Christmas trees!"

Question: Why has Frost put the line, "(For that was all they figured out apiece)," in parenthesis?

Answer: At that point, he is merely repeating Information that has already been provided, but he is adding it for a reminder and emphasis for his letter recipient.

Question: In Frost's "Christmas Trees, " how does the speaker react to the offer of three cents for each tree?

Answer: The speaker then makes it clear to the city fellow that he will not sell them.

Question: In Frost's "Christmas Trees," what does the speaker wish at the end of the poem?

Answer: In Frost's "Christmas Trees," the speaker wishes he could send his city friends as tree in the letter.

Question: How much does the city man offer for each tree? But how much would each tree be sold in the city?

Answer: In Frost's "Christmas Trees," the city man offers 3 cents for each tree, and he would likely sell them for a dollar a piece in the city.

Question: What is the tone of Robert Frost's" Christmas Trees"?

Answer: The tone in Robert Frost's" Christmas Trees" is somewhat contemplative, as well as combative sprinkled with a bit of arrogance.

Question: What is the tone of Frost's "Christmas Trees"?

Answer: The tone in Robert Frost's" Christmas Trees" is somewhat contemplative, as well as combative sprinkled with a bit of arrogance.

Question: In Robert Frost's "Christmas Trees", what has brought this stranger to the speaker’s home?

Answer: To buy fir trees to sell in town for Christmas.

Question: What kind of poem is Frost's "Christmas Trees", narrative or lyric or ballad, etc?

Answer: It's narrative: the poem features two speakers. The poem is essentially a short play (playlet), and Frost employed this form in many of his most famous poems, such a "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Witch of Coos," and "The Fear."

Question: Who makes the first move in this interaction, and why?

Answer: The "first move" is made by a stranger appearing in the yard of the countryman. The stranger, a city dweller, has come to purchase fir trees, which he would like to sell in the city.

Question: In Robert Frost's "Christmas Trees," what is wrong with some of the trees?

Answer: Some of the trees have been growing too close to one another, and that has rendered them lopsided and thus unfit for decorating.

Question: What has brought this stranger to the speaker’s home?

Answer: He wants to purchase trees.

Question: In Frost's " Christmas Trees," the speaker says that he would hate it if the trees knew he was tempted to sell them, why might he feel this way?

Answer: The speaker is exaggerating as he personifies the trees, giving them the ability to think and feel close relationships with human beings. Also, however, he is likely expressing his own feelings for his trees, as in the lines, "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."

Question: In Frost's "Christmas Trees," was the speaker open to selling his trees?

Answer: No, not very.

Question: What is the form of Frost's "Christmas Trees"?

Answer: Robert Frost's poem, "Christmas Trees," features two speakers. The poem is essentially a short play (playlet), and Frost employed this form in many of his most famous poems, such a "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Witch of Coos," and "The Fear."

Question: In Robert Frost's "Christmas Trees," what is the reason for the speaker to divulge the whole city-fellow-wanting-to-buy-Christmas-trees schtick?

Answer: Great observation! In his letter, the speaker recounts the whole potential business transaction and concludes, "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." Thus, he has been concocting material to put in his Christmas letter. The Christmas letter tradition has virtually died out—likely because of the chatty and often highly personal—as well as sometimes propagandistically political—nature of the information relayed by the writer.

Question: How is Robert Frost's "Christmas Trees" like a play?

Answer: Frost's "Christmas Trees" offers a little drama, featuring a country man mulling over whether to sell off some of his fir trees to a city merchant looking for Christmas trees to sell in the city.

Question: Left-wing socialist/communist high school and college teachers are using this poem to spout their socialist leanings. On what are they basing their allusions to dreaded capitalism?

Answer: Frost's "Christmas Trees" may cause the bleeding hearts to screech their revulsion that the city fellow, a businessman, would purchase trees for 3 cents a piece and sell them at a dollar a piece. But that kind of thinking is nonsense. They have no way of knowing the businessman's overhead or how much the trees are actually bringing in the city; after all the speaker of the poem is merely guessing how much the business fellow would sell the trees. That the speaker has a soft spot in his heart for his trees may lead him to reject the offer of 3 cents, but what if the offer had been 30 cents or 3 dollars? Might he have condescended to sell at some higher price? Or what if the seller would buy at 3 cents and sell at 10 cents? Would any of this matter to the bleeding hearts?

Ultimately, all such speculation is irrelevant; it's a poem, not a treatise in economics!

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on June 21, 2018:

Frost's poems never disappoint. His achievement remains among the highest in the poetry world. His reputation has continued to gain followers over the years since his first publication. Thanks for your response, Andie!

Andie from mNILA on June 20, 2018:

nice one

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on July 21, 2017:

Thanks, Rosario! Frost always pleases on one level or another. He can be light-hearted, deep and witty, and entertaining all at once. He is definitely one of the greats! It's no wonder he has always had a large audience.

Rosario B Villaluz from Philippines on July 20, 2017:

good read!

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