MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – For the first time in more than half a century, a series of Christmas cards and booklets that feature poems by Robert Frost, the poet known for his gritty images of rural New England life, are on display at Vermont's Middlebury College.
Some of the poems were published for the first time in the cards, some were early drafts of works in progress that went on to become Frost staples, while still others had been previously published.
The first card, sent in 1929 by a New York printer without Frost's permission, included Frost's poem "Christmas Trees," a work about a city man visiting the country to buy a Christmas tree: "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."
But not all the poems are about Christmas. In 1934, after Frost teamed up with New York printer Joe Blumenthal, the card included the poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time:" ''Out of the mud two strangers came / And caught me splitting wood in my yard / And one of them put me off my aim / By hailing cheerily 'Hit them hard!'"
"This is a unique thing for a major poet, to decide to give out Christmas cards every year with a unique poem in it and to send it out to his closest friends," said Jay Parini, a Middlebury College English professor and a Frost biographer.
Frost was also interested in the visual impact of the images, frequently woodcuts of New England scenes created by a series of artists over the years. The printing done by Blumenthal, known for turning print jobs into works of art in their own right.
"This meant a lot to Frost, that's why I love seeing it here," Parini said of the display of the entire run of the Christmas cards now on public display at the college library through the holidays.
Frost had a decades-long affiliation with Middlebury, helping to found the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, one of the most prestigious writers' conferences in the country. The chair Frost sat in while writing is also on display at the library, while a modern replica sits in the entrance where people can sit in it.
The cards were part of a cache of "Frostiana" donated to the college in 1961, two years before Frost's death, said Middlebury College Archivist Danielle Rougeau.
"This form, the combination of poem and form, with beautiful materials and craftsmanship and design, do something to a poem and Frost was aware of that and he thought it was important," Rougeau said.
Dartmouth College, where Frost studied for a short time, also has a set of Frost's Christmas cards in its college library.
"Frost's cards offer an interesting insight into his personal and professional relations," said Jay Satterfield, the Dartmouth special collections librarian. "This is the side of himself that he wished to share with a select group of people."
The earliest of the cards were done in 1929 by Blumenthal, who was printing some of Frost's poems and decided they would work well in his Christmas cards.
Five years later, Blumenthal teamed up with Frost and afterward distributed Christmas booklets almost every year until 1962, shortly before Frost's death.