Behind the Frost poem: The wretch's accomplice
Editor's note: In the Dec. 24 edition of the Banner, we published an article by Phil Holland about the story behind the Robert Frost poem "To a Young Wretch," written after a local boy had cut a Christmas tree from Frost's property without the poet's permission. Below is a letter from Barbara Downing of Bennington, who sheds further light on the misadventure, and Holland's response.
To the Editor:
The cutting of the Christmas tree from Robert Frost's woods is factually correct, only Fred Hoyt forgot to mention that he had an accomplice in the escapade! That would have been a 6-year-old (almost 7) pal from the Cleveland Avenue and Church Street neighborhoods in Shaftsbury where the seven Hoyt and the four Downing children often played together.
The accomplice was Chuck Downing, known to me for the last 63 years. Many times, my children and I have heard the story of the Christmas tree and how, after it was cut down that Christmas in 1937, it was pulled down East Street/Buck Hill on the new-fallen snow and left its tracks, along with those of the culprits.
As it was being lugged downhill, Fred and Chuck were met by Constable Floyd Holliday and his wife, who were driving up the road. The constable stopped to ask where the boys had gotten the tree and they responded, "some place up on Buck Hill." The Hollidays were evidently on the way to the Frost home, where they were caretakers. It was only a few minutes before they returned, as they had to have seen the path of the tree being dragged down the driveway and the footprints of the boys. Since the Hollidays lived in the boys' neighborhood, Floyd knew them.
It's true that Fred cut the tree and it ended up at the Hoyt home, where Fred subsequently received a visit from the constable, and Chuck was reprimanded by his father after Constable Holliday spoke to him at the Taylor & Hawkins Store in Shaftsbury.
This is just one of the many childhood memories that Chuck likes to recall, and the family chuckles about, sometimes responding by making that invisible violin gesture! He does keep us entertained.
Thanks for Fred's memories of this; to Ken Nicholson for sharing his part of the story; to Phil Holland for writing it down; and to Fred's daughter, Sandra Knight, for the picture of Fred as a youngster. Happy New Year.
Phil Holland responds
Frost is not present in the Downing account, and in fact he may not even have been at home. He had been teaching at Amherst that fall, and he was in Florida with his ailing wife, Elinor, in time for Christmas that year. He could have written "To a Young Wretch" at the beach; after all, he had written "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" on a mid-summer morning. At some point the constable must have spoken to Frost about the incident, and Frost imagined the rest. It is easy to see how Chuck, who was younger and did not wield the ax, dropped out of Fred Hoyt's story, and for poetic purposes Frost had no need of a second "wretch," though he was probably told of one. But now we have a living witness to the genesis of Frost's poem who tells the story, through his wife Barbara, as freshly as if it had just happened. Like Frost, the constable seems to have been of two minds about the theft: he makes sure that the boys are taught a lesson, but he also lets Freddie Hoyt keep the tree.
As to why Frost, owner of 153 acres, felt the loss of one tree so keenly, Frost was not only a poet of trees but something of a tree farmer too. He set out red pines at both his Shaftsbury properties, and at the Gully he had been planting trees in a field between his house and the woods, "to bring the woods closer," as his hired man (and fellow poet) Wade Van Dore said. Chuck Downing says that the tree that he and Fred cut was within sight of the house. Frost would have missed it sooner or later. In any case, he kept alive its memory, and its passage to the Hoyt living room, in his poem.
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