T. S. Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”: A Rare Vintage Gem, Illustrated by Enrico Arno
“There are several attitudes towards Christmas, some of which we may disregard: The social, the torpid, the patently commercial…”
By Maria Popova
In 1927, an enterprising and creatively minded British man by the name of Richard de la Mare, production director at London’s Faber & Gwyer, which would become the legendary publishing house Faber and Faber two years later, came up with an unusual idea: He would ask famous writers and illustrators to contribute holiday-themed verses and drawings for a poetry pamphlet series to be sent to clients instead of Christmas cards and sold to the general public for a shilling each, or about five pennies. Thanks to the company’s relationships and stable of authors, he was able to secure work from such literary greats as Edith Sitwell, W. B. Yeats, and Vita Sackville-West (yes, as in Virginia Woolf’s lover). Among the most notable contributors to the series — titled Ariel, after Shakespeare’s spirit from “The Tempest” — was celebrated poet and notorious cat-lover T. S. Eliot, who wrote six poems for the project, beginning at its inception in 1927 and ending in 1954, when he was in his late sixties.
I was fortunate enough to track down a surviving first American edition of Eliot’s final poem-pamphlet for the Ariel series, The Cultivation of Christmas Trees (public library) — a long-out-of-print gem, typeset, bound, and illustrated by Enrico Arno, who had fled Nazi Germany due to his Jewish descent, spent some time in Italy, and eventually settled in the United States to become an acclaimed book designer and album cover artist.
What makes Eliot’s verses especially memorable is that while they deal with a religious holiday, they speak to a very secular concern: our struggle to hold on to our inborn capacity for wonder, that same essential faculty that fuels both science and spirituality. Please enjoy.
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.
Published December 24, 2013