The cultivation of Christmas trees

The publishing firm of Faber & Faber suspended its annual editions of holiday “Ariel poems” (in which T.S. Eliot’s series of “Ariel poems” first appeared) in 1931, but it revived the series briefly in the 1950s. In 1954, Eliot contributed one of his few occasional poems, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” to the resurrected project. It is, perhaps, the most charming of his holiday works, partaking of the conversational voice of the Four Quartets, which he completed 11 years before. And not merely is the voice echoed; the final lines of “Cultivation” recall the “In my beginning is my end” of “East Coker.” In “Cultivation,” Eliot can’t resist a little dig at himself, gently mocking his own “piety of the convert”:

Let [the child] continue in the spirit of wonder …
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children …

And far from sternly moralizing that Christmas is more about giving than receiving, Eliot’s happy to acknowledge the child’s “delight in new possessions / (Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell).”

Eliot’s light but moving poem deserves to be better known, especially at this time of year; it’s a lovely effort to recapture the childlike spirit of Christmas for all of us, and its concluding ambivalence is doubly touching. In 2013, Casey N. Cep did her part to spread the good news about “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” in the Paris Review. She wrote:

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.

The poem follows:

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

Animula

T.S. Eliot’s third “Ariel” poem, “Animula” (1929), is like a step from the darkness into the light compared to “Journey of the Magi” and “A Song for Simeon.” Its subject appears to be childhood, not old age, and play, not sorrow. But this is the soul’s childhood, not the body’s, and before too long the “heavy burden of the growing soul / Perplexes and offends more, day by day.” This isn’t to detract from the obvious joy of the early part of the poem (which includes “the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree,” the only seasonal reference here), but it’s also true that, once maturity occurs, the final peace will be only that peace that comes with “the silence after the viaticum.” Thus the prayers for one and all at the end of the poem: the ambitious, the victimized, the rich, the prodigal. (According to the Christopher Ricks edition of Eliot’s work, you needn’t concern yourself with the last names in the final stanza — the types, not the individual identities, are what count, Eliot told a correspondent.)

I couldn’t find a particularly good recording of this poem; the full text is below.

“Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul”
To a flat world of changing lights and noise,
To light, dark, dry or damp, chilly or warm;
Moving between the legs of tables and of chairs,
Rising or falling, grasping at kisses and toys,
Advancing boldly, sudden to take alarm,
Retreating to the corner of arm and knee,
Eager to be reassured, taking pleasure
In the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree,
Pleasure in the wind, the sunlight and the sea;
Studies the sunlit pattern on the floor
And running stags around a silver tray;
Confounds the actual and the fanciful,
Content with playing-cards and kings and queens,
What the fairies do and what the servants say.
The heavy burden of the growing soul
Perplexes and offends more, day by day;
Week by week, offends and perplexes more
With the imperatives of “is and seems”
And may and may not, desire and control.
The pain of living and the drug of dreams
Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Issues from the hand of time the simple soul
Irresolute and selfish, misshapen, lame,
Unable to fare forward or retreat,
Fearing the warm reality, the offered good,
Denying the importunity of the blood,
Shadow of its own shadows, spectre in its own gloom,
Leaving disordered papers in a dusty room;
Living first in the silence after the viaticum.

Pray for Guiterriez, avid of speed and power,
For Boudin, blown to pieces,
For this one who made a great fortune,
And that one who went his own way.
Pray for Floret, by the boarhound slain between the yew trees,
Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.

A song for Simeon

One of the pleasures of the Nativity story in the Gospel of Luke is its wealth of what we might call “minor” characters — that is, those who appear briefly never to be seen again, such as the parents of John the Baptist; they are certainly not minor in significance. (As richly drawn as they are, the poetry they speak is another of Luke’s pleasures.) One of those figures is that of Simeon, an old man whom Joseph and Mary meet at the Jerusalem temple at which Christ is to be presented to the priests 40 days after his birth as part of the Mosaic law. Here’s the relevant passage, from Luke 2:26-35 in the King James version:

And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

Simeon’s song as he holds the infant Christ has come to be known as the Nunc dimittis (the first words of the canticle in Latin), and it’s been set to music a number of times, most recently by Arvo Pärt in 2001. “A Song for Simeon” (1928) is also the title of the second of T.S. Eliot’s “Ariel” poems, the series that includes “Journey of the Magi,” which appeared here yesterday. The most touching image in the gospel itself is that of the 80-year-old Simeon holding the Christ child in his arms; Eliot writes in the poem:

Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
      To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

The contrast of the newborn, utterly defenseless infant and the old man at the end of his life, waiting for death to deliver him from a corrupt world (“I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me, / I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me”), is inordinately affecting and contributes to the tenderness of the Christian holiday. And it’s one of the reasons Luke is as rich as it is.

The title of the poem, “A Song for Simeon,” is ambiguous: the poem could be a dramatic monologue spoken by Simeon, or a monologue spoken about and dedicated to Simeon, and this ambiguity ultimately renders this a less powerful poem, I think, than others of the period. (That preposition “for” is the tricky bit. Not that I have any problem with ambiguity, but here it doesn’t contribute as much to the poem as Eliot perhaps hoped.) But either way, as in “Magi” the speaker is an old man: “My life is light, waiting for the death wind … I have walked many years in this city.” Whether this speaker is Simeon, or an anonymous individual familiar with the story, or even Eliot himself, is hard to say. But the poem’s contrast of infancy and decrepitude, of the new and the old, of the hopeful and the corrupt, is inescapable. Again, what joy there is may not necessarily be ours, but it’s there if we seek it; for some, it seems to suggest, it may be too late.

More about the poem here, and Eliot’s own reading of the poem can be heard below.

Journey of the Magi

T.S. Eliot’s Christmas-themed poem “Journey of the Magi” was written in August 1927, only a few months after his formal June conversion to the Church of England. It’s a dramatic monologue in the style of Robert Browning; from old age, one of the magi recollects the long journey to the scene of Christ’s nativity, from the relative splendor of “summer palaces” and “silken girls bringing sherbet” to the more difficult and humble place of his birth. The magus feels ambivalent about the meaning of the birth: “There was a Birth, certainly, / We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, / But had thought they were different; this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”

A bit of a downer, that, for what we’re used to celebrating with joy. And we should celebrate, though for both Eliot and Chrstianity, it’s not that simple. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, a rather splendidly readable Christian apologist, theologian, and critic himself, had this to say about the poem:

Eliot never wanted to present religious faith as a nice cheerful answer to everyone’s questions, but as an inner shift so deep that you could hardly notice it, yet giving a new perspective on everything and a new restlessness in a tired and chilly world. The flatness of the rhythms and phrasing, the utterly prosaic way of describing a miracle, all contribute to what turns out to be an intensely imagined and challenging poem that I first read as a boy and that still moves and disturbs me as much as it did then.

Below, Sir Alec Guinness reads the poem; you can follow along with the video. More information on “Journey of the Magi” can be found here.