‘Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree’ is written by neo-formalist American poet George Edwin Starbuck. This piece appears in the 2003 collection The Works: Poems Selected from Five Decades. It is a concrete poem about Christmas and is shaped like a potted Christmas tree. The rhyming words, the repeating sounds, and the choice of words make the poem one of its kind.
Starbuck not only comments on society and religion but also describes the gap between the rich and poor. For the rich, Christmas is an occasion to show off their wealth. In spite of sharing the joy and caring for the weakest, they remain engaged in their celebration. In contrast, the poor are still the same, helpless and cold during Christmas. They have nothing to celebrate. Even on Christmas, they work hard for the well-off until exhaustion.
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‘Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree’ by George Starbuck is about the best of the days, Christmas, and how the rich celebrate the day.
In this poem, the speaker talks about the issues that prevailed during the time. He tries to contrast the rich and poor sections of society through the image of the Christmas tree. Starbuck is critical of the rich and points out the poverty that exists in society. He ironically comments on how the rich celebrate Christmas sumptuously and the way poor people suffer. Christmas is a festival of sharing joy rather than selfishly thinking about oneself. Through the visual Christmas tree depicted through words, Starbuck shows the gap between the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless.
You can read the full poem here.
all cuckolded creation in a madcap crown of horn!”
George Starbuck begins the poem ‘Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree’ by referring to a decorated Christmas tree. The poem has different facets; the most noticeable is the Christmas celebration. The compound words “fury-bedecked” and “glitter-torn” indicate the mood of the speaker. He is excited and, at the same time, critical about the appearance of the potted Christmas tree. This poem satirizes the nature of the rich people, and he wishes that some “wild wind” may open their eyes that are blinded by money and hypocrisy.
The junipers are the evergreen shrubs that grow in the hilly regions. Like the tops of mountains covered with these shrubs, the mind of rich people is masked with pride. The poet calls their decorated tree a “cuckolded creation,” which depicts their disloyal nature. They hide their true face under the “crown of horn.”
It’s a new day; no scapegrace of a sect
In these lines, the speaker ironically says that as it’s a new and auspicious day, none can find any cunning rich man tidying up their mess while listening to the “Daughter-In-Law Elect” opera of W. S. Gilbert. This indicates that rich people can’t keep their hands off on such an auspicious event. They depend on their servants to clean it up for them. The opera alluded to in this line talks about the misconduct of the royal people. Therefore, it is an apt reference in respect to the poem’s context.
The speaker continues to talk about different kinds of decorative items the rich people use to “fury-bedeck” their potted Christmas tree. The “bells,” “bibelots,” and “Popsicle cigars” symbolize the different forms of adornments the rich people assign to their stature to hide their true faces. The pomp and grandeur are the ways to conceal their inner nature.
In the last line of the octave, the speaker says, “Shatter the glassware!” This reference shows the speaker’s urge to shatter the facade to reveal their true identity. It can also mean that the rich are having their drinks as a part of the celebration. Suddenly, the news of the son’s birth (an allusion to Christ’s birth) is introduced in the poem.
while ox and ass and infant lie
drifts to the western hill.
The sestet begins with the word “while,” which shows the contrast of both sides. In the previous lines, the speaker talks about how wealthy people decorate and celebrate Christmas. After that, he explains the ground reality. In these lines, Starbuck alludes to the manger scene from the Bible and points out that the main message is about joy in the midst of struggle and poverty.
The “tears of her exertion” hint at the poor’s pain during winter and the problems they have to suffer. Though it’s Christmas, the joy is missing, and tears cling to the eyes of the poor. In contrast, the poet ends the poem with a great firework that drifts to the western hills. It can be an indication of the pole star that shone on the day Christ was born. The star drifted to the east to guide the Three Magi. However, in this piece, the firework drifts to the western hill, indicating that everyone is either misled or lost.
At the ending of the poem, the speaker comes to the main point. Through this section, he points out the real message. When Christ was born, shepherds were the first to receive the joyous news. Christ came to the world to help the poor, needy, and helpless people. However, the speaker indicates the reality of the situation and how the poor are still suffering while the rich people are busy decorating their potted Christmas tree.
Starbuck’s ‘Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree’ is a concrete poem that is written in the shape of a potted Christmas tree. The poem loosely adheres to the sonnet form. Besides, this piece is written from the first-person point of view and addressed to the Christmas tree. Starbuck uses exclamation marks to indicate the joy of Christmas mixed with witty remarks. He coins several compound words, such as “fury-bedecked,” “glitter-torn,” “bonbonbonanzas,” “frostyfreeze,” etc. There is a set rhyme scheme in the text. So, the poem follows a decent rhyming pattern resembling that of conventional sonnets. The rhyme scheme is ABAABBAAB CDDCCD.
Starbuck uses the following literary devices in ‘Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree’.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “cuckolded creation,” “wild wind,” “frostyfreeze,” “scapegrace of a sect,” “bells! bibelots!,” etc.
- Consonance: There is a repetition of the consonant sound “k” in the line: “iciclestuff adorn/ all cuckolded creation in a madcap crown of horn!”
- Assonance: Readers can find the repetition of the vowel sound “aw” in the phrase, “son born.”
- Allusion: Starbuck ironically says, “no scapegrace of a sect/ tidying up the ashtrays playing Daughter-in-Law Elect.” The “Daughter-in-Law Elect” is an allusion to The Mikado by W. S. Gilbert, a comic opera of two acts.
- Metaphor: In “frostyfreeze turbans,” Starbuck compares the frost covered juniper leaves to turbans.
‘Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree’ is written by neo-formalist poet George Starbuck. It was first published in the December 1978 issue of the Poetry magazine and later included in the collection The Works: Poems Selected from Five Decades (2003). Starbuck is widely known for his use of wit, pathos, and intelligent wordplay in his poetry. He introduced his own neo-formalist style known as “SLABS” (Similar Length And Breadth Sonnets). He was not recognized initially. But after his death, his works gained popularity. In this poem, he talks about Christmas and comments on society.
The real message of the poem ‘Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree’ lies in the last stanza. Starbuck writes the poem in a shape of a potted Christmas tree and includes the real meaning of Christmas, which is distorted in today’s materialistic world. The use of the compound words indicates that as these words grab the attention of readers, the rich grab others’ attention by throwing unnecessary parties and showing off their wealth. While the poor continue to suffer.
The main themes of the poem are rich vs. poor, Christmas, and inequality. In this poem, Starbuck talks about the Christmas celebration in today’s materialistic world. He explores the grandeur of wealthy people and how the poor suffer during Christmas. The rich people are so occupied with decorating their Christmas tree that they are not concerned about the real message of Christmas. Therefore, to make them aware, the poet alludes to the fact that even Christ was born in a manger, not in a palace.
The poem is written in the shape of a potted Christmas tree which makes it an ideal example of a concrete poem. It is written in conventional Petrarchan sonnet form, with an octave and sestet. The rhyme scheme of the poem is ABAABBAAB CDDCCD, and it’s written in the regular iambic meter.
In the beginning, it seems the poet is talking about the joy of the Christmas celebration, but as one delves deeper, one can find the poet hinting at the real issues of society. He comments on the grandeur and hypocrisy of the rich. The last stanza depicts how the poor continue to suffer. Therefore, through this poem, Starbuck wants us to be sympathetic to their suffering and remind us of the real meaning behind Christmas.
The following list contains a number of poems that similarly explore the themes present in George Starbuck’s poem ‘Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree’.
- ‘Christmas’ by John Betjeman — This poem describes the traditions of Christmas time and how they compare to the story of the birth of Christ.
- ‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti — This devotional poem is about the purity and innocence of a child’s soul.
- ‘Christmas Trees’ by Robert Frost — This poem depicts an interaction between a man with a thousand Christmas trees and a salesman who wants to buy them.
You can explore these best-loved poems about Christmas.