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The Poem Stuck in My Head

T. S. Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

December 18, 2013 | by

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In 1927, Richard de la Mare had an idea for some Christmas cards. Because he was a production director at London’s Faber & Gwyer, his cards were festive poetry pamphlets that could be sent to clients and sold to customers for one shilling a piece. Because two years earlier Geoffrey Faber had lured a banker from Lloyd’s Bank to work as an editor at his publishing house, Faber & Gwyer had T. S. Eliot to contribute to the series.

Named for Shakespeare’s sprite, the Ariel poems each addressed the Christmas holiday or a seasonal theme. G. K. Chesterton, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, and W. B. Yeats all contributed. The Ariel series followed a strict formula: identical cardboard bindings; title, illustrator, author, and occasionally an illustration on the cover; and two interior sheets folded to make four pages. The first page repeated the title information; the following three featured the poem and an original illustration.

T. S. Eliot wrote six poems for the series: “The Journey of the Magi” (1927), “A Song for Simeon” (1928), “Animula” (1929), “Marina” (1930), “Triumphal March” (1931), and, later when the series was revived, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” (1954). Only thirty-four lines long, that final poem is like a whisper in the whirlwind of dramatic plays and long poems that characterize most of Eliot’s later work. “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” came decades after “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), years after Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) and The Four Quartets (1943).

I think of Eliot’s Christmas trees every year around this time: when firs, pines, and spruces appear in living rooms, storefronts, and town squares around the country. Eliot wrote the poem when he was sixty-six years old. His voice is wizened, yet wistful as he reaches through all the years of his life to recover “the spirit of wonder” from his earliest Christmases. Though formal and serious, the poem seems almost saccharine when compared to his earlier work. It will surprise many that the poet of fragments and ruins eventually turned his attention to the pretty packages and bright lights of Christmas.

Eliot had been baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church in 1927, a profound religious experience recorded in his earlier Ariel poems, most notably “The Journey of the Magi.” Most of his literary contemporaries did not understand his conversion or the poems that followed and his faith remains divisive for readers and scholars of his work. For many, Eliot’s work was ruined by religion; the young secularist produced better criticism and poetry. For others, even those who aspired to admire his faith, Eliot the believer became too conservative and returned to the anti-Semitism of his youth.

By 1954, when Eliot wrote “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” the pains of conversion had waned and the poem conveys the hopeful joy of his faith. It was also perfectly illustrated by the Catholic painter and poet David Jones. The poem begins declaratively: “There are several attitudes towards Christmas,” then promptly rejects all but one of these. The speaker will not waste words on “[t]he social, the torpid, the patently commercial, / The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight) / And the childish.” He will not concern himself with those, only with the attitude “of the child.” Eliot borrows the distinction from the Gospels between childishness and the abiding sincerity of children. There is no Saint Nicholas here, only the martyr Saint Lucy and her “crown of fire.”

The speaker of the poem yearns to be like “the child / For whom the candle is a star,” the young soul for whom “the gilded angel / Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree / Is not only a decoration, but an angel.” He wants to return not to childishness, but childhood, when “the spirit of wonder” filled whole days, not only fleeting moments. He desires “the glittering rapture, the amazement / Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree.”

For those who celebrate Christmas religiously or even culturally, the earliest Christmas produces an inventory like the one offered by the poem. Returning to your first Christmas recovers the verdant odor of the tree, the soft pierce of its needles, the colorful paper or popcorn chains wrapped round it like a scarf, all of the ornaments that hook by hook made the tree your own. 

Like some fairytale of foliage, every Christmas tree tells a story in a season filled with stories, and Eliot is right to hang his argument about innocence on its branches. “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” is not about raising evergreens, but curating our own lives. Eliot writes with the hope that “the reverence and the gaiety” of childhood might linger, and “not be forgotten in later experience, / In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium / The awareness of death, [or] the consciousness of failure.”

This terrifying litany has always been the center of the poem for me. Eliot captures so many of life’s distractions and duties, which can deaden Christmas and blur all the days that fill our calendars. Experience need not be the end of innocence, yet “bored habituation,” “fatigue,” “tedium,” and “failure” often are just that. Eliot catalogues all that dulls candles so they no longer burn like stars, everything that clips the wings of angels so they no longer sing on high but sit speechless.

The poem’s syntax dramatizes this tedium of experience: though four stanzas long, it is only two sentences. The first is compact like a snowball, contained entirely in the first stanza; the second falls like a long, slow snowstorm across the remaining three stanzas. While infant sight is frenetic, age inures our vision, so what the child lives in frenzied lines, the experienced adult belabors in three long stanzas. Eliot’s hope is that “accumulated memories of annual emotion / May be concentrated into a great joy,” that we might not be jaded like the final three stanzas, but joyful like the first.

I return to Eliot’s poem to be reminded of that joy. At Eliot’s invitation, every December I try to remember my first December. I smell logs burning in my family’s woodstoves, their smoky scent mingling with the living odor of a tree my father felled himself, that reached eight feet high, like a redwood into the heights of our log cabin’s cathedral ceiling. I see the beautiful angel that my mother made herself: porcelain head and hands that she shaped and then fired in a friend’s kiln, all joined by a cotton-stuffed fabric body, all covered by a white satin dress. I hear the soft symphony as my sisters woke that angel, strings of bubble lights, and ornaments from their deep sleep between sheets of tissue paper in cardboard boxes.

I was a child for whom those lights were stars and that angel was more than a decoration. I read “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” to remember that what Eliot says was once true for me, and to hope that it might be true again. But December after December my memory fades and “the spirit of wonder” seems like something traced in the vapor of a breath on a cold windowpane: once visible, but long since disappeared.

Year after year, tedium finds its way into even this holiday: “the fatigue” of appointments and meetings; “the consciousness of failure” in bills unpaid and friends neglected; “[t]he awareness of death” in my mother’s arthritis, my father’s slowing steps, and my own grey hairs. The bubble lights look less like stars; a few of them aren’t even working. The construction paper links on the paper chains are faded and loose. The stained glass I made in preschool is really only bits of cellophane pasted crudely between squares of shiny paper. My parents now have an artificial tree that doesn’t need watering. Even the angel is only a tree topper, a porcelain doll with improbable wings.

I look back to Eliot’s poem where hope stretches from the first Christmas to “the eightieth Christmas,” explained in a tender parenthetical: “By ‘eightieth’ meaning whichever is last.” Eliot himself would not make it to eighty. He died in January of 1965, having celebrated only seventy-six Christmases. He continued writing criticism, delivering lectures, and even wrote another play, but “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” was one of the last poems that he published.

The poem’s closing couplet reads: “Because the beginning shall remind us of the end / And the first coming of the second coming.” Eliot invokes a distinctly Christian belief about the birth of Jesus and the return of Christ, moving deftly between Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the Second Coming, but he also conveys a more universal idea about the bond between life and death. The poem will hold special significance for those who share Eliot’s faith, but its appeal extends beyond those beliefs.

There are always beginnings and endings, springs and winters, whether those seasons call to mind the heavenly seasons of creation and restoration or only the human seasons of birth and death. The symbolism of evergreen trees predates Christianity, and the Christmas trees of Eliot’s poem have meaning beyond their religiosity. The cultivation in the poem’s title is not really of trees, but of persons. Joy is born naturally, but it requires tending if it is to last.

If our senescence is to be anything like our infancy, then it will require cultivating a sense of wonder. In appealing to first and lasts, Eliot is, as in the rest of his poetry, at the edge of despair; only in “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” he stands firmly on the side of joy. I love the poem because he invites us to join him, to look again for enchantment and wonder in our lives, to stare at Christmas trees until the electric lights twinkle like stars.

 

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4 Comments

  1. JW | December 19, 2013 at 10:08 am

    This is a lovely essay, or mostly lovely; and an insightful essay, or mostly insightful. The final paragraphs mar it terribly. This poem, like so many of Eliot’s, reflects Christopher Dawson’s conviction that all culture is founded on, and so dependent on, Cult, i.e. responsiveness to the gift of God, or the gods.

    If you will not accept the vision of Christmas as wholly and truly a divine gift: God’s self-manifestation and incarnation as the Infant Prince of Peace, then you cannot really see the Christmas tree as it is. You cannot really celebrate Christmas. You should, as a matter of intellectual honesty, give your attention and devotion to other things, like the pursuit of political power or squalid pleasures. If you think you see something good in the Christmas tree, he would continue, then that is nothing other than the extension of grace: your chance to pursue the truth to its end and join the Body of Christ.

    I know you think you are doing Eliot and his poem a favor by couching in smarmy pluralistic and secularized language. But you are in fact perpetrating just those lies to which he committed himself — even in the years before his conversion — to confronting. If you will not have God, he frequently said, you should pay your allegiance to the gods you really worship: but, most people do not recognize they gods they worship, because they are so busy appropriating the Christmas trees, changing them from the sign of a divine gift to the expression of their own subjective needs and appetites.

  2. jweaks | December 19, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    An article well worth reading and JW’s comment as well. Eliot was right, “If will not have God…”

  3. EP | December 20, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Cep seems right. As the wizened, honest Eliot suggests: If Christmas is not about the incarnate God, the whole “universal” holiday business would be a tiresome, boring, expensive, passing vapor.

  4. M Z Martin | December 21, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    Selah.
    Thank you Casey Cep.

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