IT is Christmas tree purchase time once again-unless that is you are one of those wise people who has nurtured one from a previous year which you can continue to use, or unless you are one of those who for a variety of reasons- economical. practical, ecological- prefer not to buy.

It was fitting, then, to come across the following Eliot poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” in his “Collected Poems”. It cannot be claimed it is one of his best poems, and following, as it does in the Ariel series, the wonderful “Marina” which is, it is all too easy to overlook.

Yet I suggest what Eliot discusses is worth pursuing.

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees

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 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 the 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 the last) 
The accumulated memories of annual emotion 
May be concentrated into a great joy 
Which shall also be 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.   

It is not great poetry. It is rhythmically flat, no more than elegantly expressed rational discourse. As in the elderly Wordsworth, Eliot when he loses poetic force, without the driving impulsion of emotion creating and guiding the rhythm, the verse sounds prosaic.

That said, the poem has its interest. It appears to be Eliot’s last, written a few months before his death. It shows the unromantic Eliot holding on to that very Romantic emphasis on wonder that that great movement added to our understanding.

The child wonders at the Christmas tree; 
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder.  


Just as Wordsworth holds on to the wonder of the rainbow in the sky and prays to maintain that wonder :

So be it when I shall grow old
       Or let me die.

so Eliot sees the importance of childhood wonder as informing our later life up to death

In Eliot’s poem the wonder then becomes associated, for the soul nearing death, with fear: the fear here referring us back to the fear felt by the shepherds visited by the angels (“Fear not: for behold, I bring tidings of great joy” )

Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion 
When fear came upon every soul. 

The fear of death, of the judgement death brings on a life approaching it, is mitigated by the accumulated wonder and gratitude developed through a lifetime of the celebration of God’s great gift, as remembered every Christmas.

Let us then, whatever our age, as we look at our Christmas tree and value the Christmas stories, seek sustenance from and nurture within us that sense of accumulated wonder.


James Wheeler from Pexels

The Third realm sounds mysterious, perhaps mystical, but is simply like this.

It is English class and a group of students look at a poem, let us say this by Wordsworth.

My heart leaps up when I behold
   A rainbow in the sky,
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
  Or let me die!.
The Child is father of the man 
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety. 

It is a well focused class. The teacher reads through the poem twice with them and then they discuss it.

Here is the question: ” As they listen and discuss the poem where is the poem?”

Yes simple as that : Where is the poem?

Is it on the page in those black marks? Or written in the past is it a document that belongs to the year 1802 or whenever Wordsworth wrote it?

This does not seem satisfactory.

The poem has been recreated in experience by the reading. It is not just black marks on a page and it is made vividly present not an antiquated document from back there.

Is the poem then in the minds of the teacher and students?. Well yes , that can be said.

Is it purely subjective experience then? Perhaps, but it is a common subjective experience and yet each subjective mind no doubt has a slightly different take on the poem.

In the discussion the teacher asks questions: like why “behold” rather than “see” , “view” “observe”?. What are the connotations, the sound, the meaning, the length of “behold” that makes it appropriate Wordsworth chooses that word.

Why the three lines beginning “So was it” “So is it” “So be it”. What is being done by that format?

How does this development of past, present and future lead to the general statement: “The child is father of the man”.

What does the poignant sounding “Or let me die” suggest?

How does the finale complete the meaning of the poem?

There are loads of questions to explore.

The students seem alive to the poem and what it has to offer. One smart guy points to the opening rhythms of the opening lines “Are they not a wee bit slack the sort of emotive sound and rhythm that can easily be mocked?” You see the point. Wordsworth can be so overly simple and emotional sounding his work can often get parodied. At the same time the teacher sees this possible weakness compensated for by the strong binding rhythm of the centre of the poem.

Lots to discuss; the class remains well focused.

Where in all this interaction is the poem?

The 1802 poem is being recreated, it is a sustained following through the making of the poem making it alive again.

That is the third realm. The poem is there in the exchange of reading listening, discussing, imaginative re-reading.

It is real experience; all have been vividly involved. But the experience is not directed towards objective truth. It is not like a scientific experiment where verification happens when the liquid in the test tube turns colour. Nor is it simply subjective. The teacher is not saying “Take away your own meaning and be satisfied with that.” The focus is all on the meaning achieved by the poem.. One student might say this and you might want to interject “Yes, but..”.

It is a learning experience but you are not just looking for a definite answer to the meaning of the poem, as in the scientific experiment; objectively established. You are seeking to bring together through discussion, what T. S Eliot spoke of as the common pursuit of true judgement. You are looking to establish Wordsworth’s arguable meaning, not propose your own individual one.

The third realm: discussion in which minds meet.

Now read this quotation from F.R. Leavis:

It is in the study of literature, that one comes to recognise the nature and priority of the third realm… the realm of that which is neither merely private and personal nor public in the sense it can be brought into the laboratory or pointed to. Y ou cannot point to the poem; it is “there” only in the re-creative response of individual minds to the black marks on the page. But -a necessary faith- it is something in which minds can meet. The process in which this faith is justified is given fairly enough in the account of the nature of criticism…..The implicit form of a judgement is: This is so, isn’t it? the question is an appeal for confirmation is that the thing is so; implicitly that , though expecting, characteristically, an answer in the form, “yes,but- ” the but standing for qualifications, reserves, corrections. Here we have a diagram of the collaborative creative process in which the poem becomes established as something “out there”, of common access in what is in some sense a public world. It gives us, too, the nature of the existence of English Literature, a living whole, that can have its life only in the living present, in the creative response of individuals, who collaboratively renew and perpetuate what they participate in – a cultural community or consciousness. More it gives us the nature in general of what I have called the “third realm” to which all that makes us human belongs.

F.R. Leavis “Two Cultures? The Significance of Lord Snow.” Richmond Lecture 1962.

This is dense and precisely focused argument. Note how the discussion of say a poem, by which it is placed as something admired (or not) is a paradigm for the way in which the idea of a literature becomes created by criticism ( Shakespeare is supreme where Ben Jonson is simply very good).- though criticism is always open to revaluation and agreement will never be universal. But also, and perhaps especially, note how the “third realm” also stands for the way in which a language is created and the way in which we belong to a particular form of the human world within that language.


I’ll come back to this!