HANOVER, N.H. — Take heart, holiday procrastinators: Famed poet Robert Frost once waited until July to get his Christmas cards in the mail.
Unlike the flimsy, forgettable cards of today, however, Frost’s cards arguably were worth the wait.
For the past 28 years of his life, he teamed up with a boutique printer to send beautifully illustrated booklets featuring a different poem for each year.
Dartmouth College, which Frost briefly attended as a student and later returned as a lecturer, has collected more than 500 of the cards, including the first installment, which was sent without Frost’s knowledge.
In 1929, Joseph Blumenthal of the New York-based Spiral Press, who was setting type for one of Frost’s poetry collections, decided the poem “Christmas Trees” would make an attractive greeting card.
With permission from Frost’s publisher, he printed 275 copies, one of which eventually made its way to Frost. The poet liked it so much, he decided to collaborate with Blumenthal on cards starting in 1934.
The resulting series lasted until 1962, the year before his death.
“It was one of the more fun things about him,” said Frost biographer Jay Parini, a professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College. He called the cards a “remarkable tradition” that’s carried out by other poets today.
Many of Frost’s cards feature woodcut illustrations evoking the New England landscape with which he was so deeply associated. Printed on heavy cardstock, some run to 10 or 15 pages.
The 1942 card included a hand-colored illustration of a country village and the poem “The Gift Outright,” which Frost, who won four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry, later recited from memory at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.
Many in the Dartmouth collection were sent to Frost’s close friend and editor Edward Lathem, whose nearly six decades of work at the Ivy League school included a long stint as head librarian.
In 1959, the card featured a previously unpublished poem called “A-Wishing Well,” and on Lathem’s copy, Frost inserted two hand-written lines in the poem.
Parini said that was not unusual for Frost, who often inscribed first editions of his books with little notes for his friends, or sometimes even complete, unpublished poems.
“He liked to personalize things,” he said.
In 1951, Frost accompanied a card featuring the poem “A Cabin in the Clearing” with this note to Dartmouth bookstore employee Ruby Dagget: “in hopes that you will carry it like a lesson to your schoolhouse in the wilds of Vershire,” a nearby Vermont town.
In one of his 1953 cards, he explained why the poem “Does No One at All But Me Ever Feel This Way in the Least?” was postmarked July instead of December.
“This Christmas poem, though not isolationist, is so dangerously isolationist, it was thought better to send it out for Independence Day instead of Christmas,” he wrote.
Sending such a tardy greeting also was in keeping with Frost’s personality, Parini said. “He never lost an opportunity to make a splash,” he said.
From an initial print run of 775 cards in 1934, the number of cards produced grew to more than 17,000 in 1962. Some have been snatched up by collectors for $4,000 to $5,000, said Steve Smith, who researched the cards for Dartmouth’s alumni office.
Among his personal favorites is the 1934 card Frost sent from Key West, Fla., to a Dartmouth professor.
“The time stamp was Dec. 24 at 5 p.m., so I like imagining Frost at the post office in Key West on Christmas Eve,” he said.