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Jane Kenyon's "Christmas Away from Home"

Updated on June 10, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Jane Kenyon

Source

Introduction and Text of "Christmas Away from Home"

Jane Kenyon‘s "Christmas Away from Home" describes the neighborhood of the infirm woman with whom the speaker is staying while the latter cares for the former in her time of illness. As the speaker walks the sick woman’s dog, the speaker reports what she sees in the neighborhood. She then begins to muse about her own home, from which she sadly must remain away at Christmas time.

Christmas Away from Home

Her sickness brought me to Connecticut.
Mornings I walk the dog: that part of life
is intact. Who’s painted, who’s insulated
or put siding on, who’s burned the lawn
with lime—that’s the news on Ardmore Street.

The leaves of the neighbor’s respectable
rhododendrons curl under in the cold.
He has backed the car
through the white nimbus of its exhaust
and disappeared for the day.

In the hiatus between mayors
the city has left leaves in the gutters,
and passing cars lift them in maelstroms.

We pass the house two doors down, the one
with the wildest lights in the neighborhood,
an establishment without irony.
All summer their putto empties a water jar,
their St. Francis feeds the birds.
Now it’s angels, festoons, waist-high
candles, and swans pulling sleighs.

Two hundred miles north I’d let the dog
run among birches and the black shade of pines.
I miss the hills, the woods and stony
streams, where the swish of jacket sleeves
against my sides seems loud, and a crow
caws sleepily at dawn.

By now the streams must run under a skin
of ice, white air-bubbles passing erratically,
like blood cells through a vein. Soon the mail,
forwarded, will begin to reach me here.

Commentary

Having traveled 200 miles away from her home to attend a sick woman, the speaker in Jane Kenyon’s "Christmas Away from Home" professes to missing her own home, but her attitude toward the woman she's attending, the dog she walks, and the neighborhood in which she temporarily resides demonstrates very little of the Christmas spirit or Christian empathy that one might expect from one who so selflessly spends this important holiday away from home.

First Movement: Tending a Sick Woman

Her sickness brought me to Connecticut.
Mornings I walk the dog: that part of life
is intact. Who’s painted, who’s insulated
or put siding on, who’s burned the lawn
with lime—that’s the news on Ardmore Street.

The speaker has traveled at least 200 miles south to Connecticut to tend a woman who is ill. The speaker does not divulge the nature of the illness, nor does she ever report who the sick woman is. The poor invalid may be a relative or just a friend, but the speaker deems that information unimportant for her story. Likely the reason that readers are kept ignorant about those two details is that the speaker is focusing on herself and her own experience of being away from home at Christmas.

The speaker begins by reporting that every morning her task is to walk the dog. She declares, "that part of life is intact," as well it would be because dogs become quite insistent in making sure they get their daily walk in. Those creatures of habit can be quite persuasive. The speaker then begins to reveal what she sees in the neighborhood. She observes, "[w]ho’s painted, who’s insulated / or put siding on." She also notes who has, "burned the lawn / with lime." Then she leaves those reports by declaring, "that’s the news on Ardmore Street."

Second Movement: Reporting the Sights

The leaves of the neighbor’s respectable
rhododendrons curl under in the cold.
He has backed the car
through the white nimbus of its exhaust
and disappeared for the day.

As the speaker continues her walk, though, she takes up again her report on the sights that the neighborhood has to offer. She observes that one neighbor’s "rhododendron" leaves are "curl[ing] under in the cold." That particular neighbor has just left for work; he has, "backed his car / through the white nimbus of exhaust." She guesses that he is now gone "for the day."

Third Movement: Mayors and Leaves

In the hiatus between mayors
the city has left leaves in the gutters,
and passing cars lift them in maelstroms.

The speaker has been made cognizant that the leaves have been left to gather abundantly in the gutters. She claims that it is because the town is on a "hiatus between mayors." The cars swishing through all those leaves swirl them and whip them up into "maelstroms."

Fourth Movement: Commentary on Christmas

We pass the house two doors down, the one
with the wildest lights in the neighborhood,
an establishment without irony.
All summer their putto empties a water jar,
their St. Francis feeds the birds.
Now it’s angels, festoons, waist-high
candles, and swans pulling sleighs.

The speaker and the dog continue on with their walk. They move past a house with Christmas decorations, and the speaker claims that this house professes the "wildest lights in the neighborhood." She summarizes her commentary on the view, claiming the scene to be "without irony." Apparently, that particular yard also has on display even in summer various religious symbols, such as one of St. Francis feeding his birds, along with a putto, or a cupid-like figure, pouring water out of a jar. Because it is Christmas time, this yard now has on display, "angels, festoons, waist-high / candles, and swans pulling sleighs."

Fifth Movement: If She Were Home

Two hundred miles north I’d let the dog
run among birches and the black shade of pines.
I miss the hills, the woods and stony
streams, where the swish of jacket sleeves
against my sides seems loud, and a crow
caws sleepily at dawn.

The speaker lives 200 miles north of this neighborhood where she is stationed caring for the sick woman. Thus, she commences to compare what she would be doing if she were home to what she is doing here. If she were home, she would let her own dog roam free, "among birches and the black shade of pines." Not have him on a leash, walking him through a gaudy neighborhood all festooned with obnoxious Christmas regalia!

The speaker then lets loose her supposed homesickness: she misses "the hills, the woods and stony / streams." She longs for the quietness of her rustic homestead where "the swish of jacket sleeves / against my sides seems loud." She also has begun to miss the sound of "a crow" that would "caw[ ] sleepily at dawn." Clearly, the speaker is quite proud of her rustic life up north; this neighborhood's offerings do not compare favorably with her own pastoral abode.

As the speaker has continued in her thinly veiled criticisms of her current surroundings, her homesickness seems to be concocted for a narrative. She begins to seem more like an opportunist using as prop, somewhat as she is using the unnamed sick woman, than to actually be homesick for the hills.

Sixth Movement: Musing Back Home

By now the streams must run under a skin
of ice, white air-bubbles passing erratically,
like blood cells through a vein. Soon the mail,
forwarded, will begin to reach me here.

The speaker continues to muse on what might be happening back at her own home. She visualizes the streams having ice thinly coating them. She perceives "white air-bubbles" in the streams and makes the bizarre claim that they would be moving "erratically, / like blood cells through a vein." Concluding her rather self-indulgent thoughts of melancholy, she seems to find it comforting that she will be receiving her mail from home soon, after having it forwarded. She has attempted to describe her own melancholy at being homesick at Christmas time. But her superciliousness leads the reader to wonder if she has an ulterior motive and is merely feigning her Christmas melancholy.

Character Poverty

This piece reeks of postmodern atheist grief as the speaker's eyes are accosted with those gaudy "Christmas" decorations of the neighbor as she walks the sick woman's pooch. Her disdain for those who live in "neighborhoods" rather than on extensive country spreads with their streams and trees where dogs can roam free without a leash paints her a snob of the most odious kind.

This piece lacks soul. It seems to exist for no other reason than to showcase the speaker's pride in her own possessions and points of view. The speaker is supposedly attending a sick woman yet fails to make that woman real. Using a sick woman as a foil for showcasing one's own conceited, self-centered nature seems the height of character poverty.

Another Vacuous Example: Poetaster Jane Kenyon Reads "Otherwise"

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    4 months ago from U.S.A.

    Response to Elizaveta M :

    The speaker’s attitude toward Christmas and the Christian faith is revealed primarily in the seven lines of the fourth movement:

    We pass the house two doors down, the one

    with the wildest lights in the neighborhood,

    an establishment without irony.

    All summer their putto empties a water jar,

    their St. Francis feeds the birds.

    Now it’s angels, festoons, waist-high

    candles, and swans pulling sleighs.

    In this movement, the speaker describes the house “two doors down” from the sick woman’s house. She makes a disparaging remark about that house in the lines, “with the wildest lights in the neighborhood, / an establishment without irony.” By choosing to describe those lights as the “wildest,” she reveals contempt by implying that those lights are outrageous. The term “wildest” is antithetical to anything relating to the peaceful, dignified calmness of the season of Christmas or the Christian faith.

    She then compounds her contempt by calling that home and its decorations, “an establishment without irony.” The term “establishment” implies a faceless, committee-inspired foundation, hardly a term to use when referring to a home, a place where families live their lives. Compounding again, she claims that these decorations put up by this establishment are “without irony,” implying that while they do not see the irony of their decorating choices, she does. She sees how outrageous it is to decorate so wildly for a season that celebrates essentially a fairy tale, one which the speaker is too intelligent to accept on any level. That descriptor finalizes her utter disdain for what she has observed in that house.

    But she isn’t finished yet; she continues by describing the decorations that “establishment without irony” puts up in summer. All of the decorations have one thing in common, the Christian faith.

    The speaker in this poem demonstrates disdain for her current surroundings. She makes it clear that 200 miles north, she lives in a rustic setting far from traffic where she can allow her dog to roam free without a leash. Although she seems to be performing a charitable act in attending a sick woman, she doesn’t even reveal anything else about that woman. All readers know about the sick woman is that she is sick and lives in a neighborhood for which the speaker holds contempt.

    If readers filter out the speaker’s attitude and replace it only with the notion that most people would miss being home at Christmas, they fail to grasp what is actually happening in the poem. Merely longing to be home for Christmas does not automatically reveal a “spiritual connection to that day.”

  • profile image

    Elizaveta M 

    4 months ago

    Thank you for the response. What I can't get over is that the fact that the poem is set on Christmas, that the speaker longs to be home on Christmas, to me reveals that the speaker does have a spiritual connection to that day. If it were some other day, I might agree with you. But to spend an important holiday like Christmas, away from home in a "foreign territory" can be difficult for many--even when moving to take care of somebody, it's natural to think of home. My house had a visitor from Ukraine. She stayed for 4 months and was ready to leave until the pandemic hit, and she often spoke to me about feeling this way, about wanting to spend holidays at home. Could I blame her?

    I think if the speaker were truly careless, she would simply leave, but it is no fault to reminisce.

    Another thing, putting care into placing Christmas decorations can be a shared moment of religious experience for some, but for most people I know, even Christians, it is simply a cosmetic decision. The block I live in is called "Christmas block," people (including me) put up many Christmas decorations regardless of religious belief, simply to impress others and attract local radio stations as a fun sort of tradition. But the most important moments of Christmas experience are shared at home, and so in my opinion it's natural to think of home above all else and perhaps even to view your present surroundings as lacking freedom, confining, when you are so far away from home.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    4 months ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you for commenting, Elizaveta M. Just a few quick responses:

    1. “the speaker has traveled far away from home to care for a loved one, and the elements which she recognizes from her home cause her to long to return home. how is this character poverty? homesickness is a fairly common human experience.”

    The speaker claims to be attending a sick woman yet fails to make that woman real; thus, she is using a sick woman as a foil for showcasing one's own conceited, self-centered nature and that is the height of character poverty.

    She does the same thing with the dog as she compares what she would be doing if she were home to what she is doing here. If she were home, she would let her own dog roam free, "among birches and the black shade of pines,” demonstrating that she owns several acres of property, not just a suburb plot of likely less than an acre. At home on her large country plot of land, she would not have her dog on a leash, walking him through a gaudy neighborhood all festooned with obnoxious Christmas regalia!

    “Common human experience” of homesickness does not relieve the speaker of behaving with kindness to those less fortunate than herself. She does not do that. She is implying her own superiority by contrasting her own living arrangements with those of this poor woman, whom she does not even identify.

    2. "how does the speaker appear to be a 'postmodern atheist'”?

    As the speaker walks past a house with Christmas decorations, she asserts that this house professes the "wildest lights in the neighborhood." She summarizes her commentary on the view, claiming the scene to be "without irony." She reports that that particular yard also has on display even in summer various religious symbols, such as one of St. Francis feeding his birds, along with a putto, or a cupid-like figure, pouring water out of a jar. Because it is Christmas time, this yard now has on display, "angels, festoons, waist-high / candles, and swans pulling sleighs.”

    That the speaker finds employment of these decorations “without irony” indicates that she is boasting about being intelligent enough to see the irony of the situation. And the “irony” can mean only that to this speaker such displays of faith really bespeak crass materialism instead of faith. Such belittlement reveals the speaker’s own lack of faith—not that of the decorators. The decorator continues a Christian theme throughout the seasons. To belittle such an endeavor by calling it “without irony” spews forth the postmodernist’s atheist superciliousness so common to poetasters.

    3. “one could argue that commercialized decorations are in and of themselves atheist and postmodern”

    It is what is in the decorators’ hearts, minds, and souls that make the difference between believer and atheist. Do those atheists put up those decorations as they celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ? Or are they just doing so in actuality “without irony”?

    4. “the internal turmoil of the speaker is caused by her desire to be at home during Christmas. you've misread her and made her out to be a shallow narcissist for experiencing something many people have felt”

    I have not discussed or even mentioned any “inner turmoil.” The speaker does not demonstrate “turmoil” at being away from home, and as she has continued her thinly veiled criticisms of her current surroundings, her homesickness seems to be concocted for the narrative. She begins to seem more like an opportunist using as prop, somewhat as she is using the unnamed sick woman, than to be truly homesick for the hills.

  • profile image

    Elizaveta M 

    4 months ago

    the speaker has traveled far away from home to care for a loved one, and the elements which she recognizes from her home cause her to long to return home. how is this character poverty? homesickness is a fairly common human experience.

    how does the speaker convey a "disdain" for the neighborhood, rather than a longing to spend Christmas at home?

    how does the speaker appear to be a "postmodern atheist"? one could argue that commercialized decorations are in and of themselves atheist and postmodern, bringing elements of the holy day of Christmas into generalized commensurability with the rest of the commodities that we buy. in religious societies, certain things are not generally commensurable because of their spiritual and ritual importance... commodified decorations reflect a society that has stripped religious items of their spiritual significance. i know many atheists who put up christmas decorations.

    the internal turmoil of the speaker is caused by her desire to be at home during Christmas. you've misread her and made her out to be a shallow narcissist for experiencing something many people have felt

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