Young Wretch

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(HOST) Across Vermont thousands of people have been buying Christmas trees – or cutting their own. Commentator Peter Gilbert tells us about a Robert Frost poem in which the narrator struggles to feel the holiday spirit toward a neighbor who’s cut a Christmas tree on his land without asking.

(GILBERT) The poem is called "To a Young Wretch", and in my book, the title alone is reason enough to love it. Frost used the poem for his Christmas card in 1937. In the poem the narrator tells how a young man chopped down a spruce tree from the narrator’s woods, and dragged it home to use as a Christmas tree. The narrator, who, of course, may or may not be Frost himself, says that he "could have bought [him] just as good a tree". But he acknowledges that being given a tree isn’t the same thing as swiping it. I notice that the narrator does not claim that if the boy only asked, he would have given him the tree — and would we have believed him if he had made that assertion of charity?

The narrator summarizes the conflict saying, It is your Christmases against my woods. And yet even here, when their interests are diametrically opposed, he argues that it should be thought of not as a conflict between good and evil, but rather as a conflict between two competing goods. And, he asserts, it becomes easier to understand how God might be thought of as always fighting on both sides of a war at once, if you think of a war as being about competing goods, rather than as a battle between good and evil.

Here’s Frost’s poem "To a Young Wretch" :

As gay for you to take your father’s ax
As take his gun – rod – to go hunting – fishing.
You nick my spruce until its fiber cracks,
It gives up standing straight and goes down swishing.
You link arm in its arm and you lean
Across the light snow homeward smelling green.

I could have bought you just as good a tree
To frizzle resin in a candle flame,
And what a saving t’would have meant to me.
But tree by charity is not the same
As tree by enterprise and expedition.
I must not spoil your Christmas with contrition.

It is your Christmases against my woods.
But even where, thus, opposing interests kill,
They are to be thought of as opposing goods
Oftener than as conflicting good and evil;
Which makes the war god seem no special dunce
For always fighting on both sides at once.

And though in tinsel chain and popcorn rope
My tree, a captive in your window bay,
Has lost its footing on my mountain slope
And lost the stars of heaven, may, oh, may
The symbol star it lifts against your ceiling
Help me accept its fate with Christmas feeling.

That says it all, doesn’t it – the challenge to feel the holiday spirit towards everyone – even someone who has wronged you, taken something of yours. Isn’t that the challenge all year long – to love your enemy, to love your neighbor as yourself, even if your neighbor is a young wretch?

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. To a Young Wretch is quoted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, Publishers.

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