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Robert Frost's "Birches"

Updated on April 22, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Robert Frost

Source

Introduction and Text of "Birches"

The speaker in Robert Frost's "Birches" is musing on a boyhood activity that he enjoyed. As a "swinger of birches," he rode trees and felt the same euphoria that children feel who experience carnival rides such as ferris wheels or tilt-a-whirls. The speaker also gives a rather thorough description of birch trees after an ice-storm. In addition, he makes a remarkable statement that hints at the yogic concept of reincarnation: "I'd like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over."

However, after making that striking remark, he backtracks perhaps thinking such a foolish thought might disqualify him from rational thought. That remark however demonstrates that as human beings our deepest desires correspond to truth in ways that our culture in the Western world has plastered over through centuries of materialistic emphasis on the physical level of existence. The soul knows the truth and once in blue moon a poet will stumble across it, even if he does not have the ability to fully recognize it.

Birches

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Robert Frost read his poem, "Birches"

Commentary

Robert Frost's "Birches" is one of the poet's most famous and widely anthologized poems. It features a speaker looking back on a boyhood experience that he cherishes and would like to do again.

First Movement: A View of Arching Birch Trees

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

The speaker begins by painting a scene wherein birch trees are arching either "left or right" and contrasting their stance with "straighter darker tree." He asserts his wish that some young lad has been riding those trees to bend them that way.

Then the speaker explains that some boy swinging on those trees, however, would not bend them permanently "[a]s ice-storms do." After an ice-storm they become heavy with the ice that begins making clicking sounds. In the sunlight, they "turn many-colored" and they move until the motion "cracks and crazes their enamel."

Second Movement: Ice Sliding off Trees

Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

The sun then causes the crazy ice to slide off the trees as it "shatter[s] and avalanch[es]" on to the snow. Having fallen from the trees, the ice looks like big piles of glass, and the wind comes along and brushes the piles into the ferns growing along the road.

The ice has caused the trees to remain bent for years as they continue to "trail their leaves on the ground." Seeing the arched birches puts the speaker in mind of girls tossing their hair "over the heads to dry in the sun."

Third Movement: Off on a Tangent

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

At this point, the speaker realizes that he has gone off on a tangent with his description of how birches get bent by ice-storms. His real purpose he wants the reader/listener to know lies in another direction. That the speaker labels his aside about the ice-storm bending the birch tree "Truth" is somewhat bizarre. While his colorful description of the trees might be a true one, it hardly qualifies as "truth" and with a capital "T" no less.

"Truth" involves issues that relate to eternal verities, especially of a metaphysical or spiritual nature—not how ice-storms bend birch trees or any purely physical detail or activity. The speaker's central wish in this discourse is to reminisce about this own experience of what he calls riding trees as a "swinger of birches." Thus describes the kind of boy who would have engaged in such an activity.

The boy lives so far from other people and neighbors that he must make his own entertainment; he is a farm boy whose time is primarily taken up farm work and likely some homework for school. He has little time, money, inclination for much of a social life, such as playing baseball or attending other sports games. Of course, he live far from the nearest town. The boy is inventive, however, and discovers that swinging on birch trees is a fun activity that offers him entertainment as well as the acquisition of a skill. He had to learn to climb the tree to the exact point where he can then "launch" his ride.

The boy has to take note of the point and time to swing out so as not to bend the tree all the way to ground. After attaining just the right position on the tree and beginning the swing downward, he can then let go of the tree and fling himself "outward, feet first." And "with a swish," he can begin kicking his feet as he soars through the air and lands on the ground.

Fourth Movement: The Speaker as a Boy

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.

Now the speaker reveals that he himself once engaged in the pastime of swinging on birches. That is now he knows so much about the difference it makes of a boy swinging on the trees and ice-storms for the arch of the trees. And also that he was once a "swinger of birches" explains how he knows the details of just how some boy would negotiate the trees as he swung on them.

The speaker then reveals that he would like to revisit that birch-swinging activity. Especially when he is tired of modern-day life, running the rat-race, facing all that the adult male has to contend with in the workday world, he day-dreams about this carefree days of swinging on trees.

Fifth Movement: Getting off the Ground

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

The speaker then asserts his wish to leave earth and come back again. Likely this speaker uses the get-away-from-earth notion to refer to the climbing the birch tree, an act that would literally get him up off the ground away from earth. But he quickly asks that "no fate willfully misunderstand" him and snatch him away from the earth through death—he "knows" that such a snatch would not allow him to return.

The speaker then philosophizes that earth is "the right place for love" because he has no idea that there is any other place it could "go better." So now he clarifies that he simply would like to climb back up a birch tree and swing out as he did when a boy: that way he would leave earth for the top of the tree and then return to earth after riding it down and swinging out from the tree. Finally, he offers a summing up of the whole experience that being swinger of birches—well, "one could do worse."

A Piece of Nostalgia

This poem is clearly and unequivocally a nostalgic piece by a speaker looking back at a boyhood pastimes that he cherishes. Some readers have fashioned an interpretation of masturbatory activity from this poem. Please see "Tricked by Robert Frost's 'Birches'" for further discussion of this issue.

Bent Birch

Source

Birch Trees

Source

Life Sketch of Robert Frost

Robert Frost's father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist, living in San Fransisco, California, when Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874; Robert's mother, Isabelle, was an immigrant from Scotland. The young Frost spent eleven years of his childhood in San Fransisco. After his father died of tuberculosis, Robert's mother moved the family, including his sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived with Robert's paternal grandparents.

Robert graduated in 1892 from Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife, Elinor White, served as co-valedictorians. Robert thEn made his first attempt to attend college at Dartmouth College; after only a few months, he returned to Lawrence and began working a series of part-time jobs.

Elinor White, who was Robert's high school sweetheart, was attending St. Lawrence University when Robert proposed to her. She turned him down because she wanted to finish college before marrying. Robert then relocated to Virginia, and then after returning to Lawrence, he again to proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education. The two married on December 19, 1895. Their first child, Eliot, was born the following year.

Robert then made another attempt to attend college; in 1897, he enrolled in Harvard University, but because of health issues, he had to leave school again. Robert rejoined his wife in Lawrence, and their second child Lesley was born in 1899 . The family then moved to a New Hampshire farm that Robert's grandparents had acquired for him. Thus, Robert's farming phase commenced as he attempted to farm the land and continue his writing. His first poem to appear in print, “My Butterfly," had been published on November 8, 1894, in The Independent, a New York newspaper.

The next twelve years proved a difficult time in Frost's personal life, but a fertile one for his writing. The Frosts' first child, Eliot, died in 1900 of cholera. The couple, however, went on to have four more children, each of which suffered from mental illness to suicide. The couple's farming endeavors continued to result in unsuccessful attempts. Frost became well adjusted to rustic life, despite his miserable failure as a farmer.

Frost's writing life took off in a splendid fashion, and the rural influence on his poems would later set the tone and style for all of his works. However, despite the success of his individual published poems, such "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," he could not find a publisher for his collections of poems.

Relocation to England

It was because of his failure to find a publisher for his collections of poems that Frost sold the New Hampshire farm and moved his family to England in 1912. This moved proved to be life-line for the young poet. At age 38, he secured a publisher in England for his collection, A Boy's Will, and soon after North of Boston.

In addition to finding a publisher for his two books, Frost became acquainted with Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two important poets of the day. Both Pound and Thomas reviewed Frost's two book favorably, and thus Frost's career as a poet moved forward.

Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas was especially important, and Frost has remarked that the long walks taken by the two poet/friends had influenced his writing in a marvelously positive manner. Frost has credited Thomas for his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," which was sparked by Thomas' attitude regarding not being able to take two different paths on their long walks.

Returning to America

After World War 1 broke out in Europe, the Frosts set sail back to the United States. The brief sojourn in England had had useful consequences for the poet's reputation, even back in his native country. American Publisher, Henry Holt, picked up Frost's earlier books, and then come out with his third, Mountain Interval, a collection that had been written while Frost was still residing in England.

Frost was treated to the delicious situation of having the same journals, such as The Atlantic, soliciting his work, even though they had rejected that same work a couple of years earlier.

The Frosts once again became owners of a farm located in Franconia, New Hampshire, which they purchased in 1915. The end of their traveling days were over, and Frost continued his writing career, as he taught intermittently at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and particularly Amherst College, where he taught regularly from 1916 until 1938. Amherst's main library is now the Robert Frost Library, honoring the long-time educator and poet. He also spent most summers teaching English at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Frost never completed a college degree, but over his entire lifetime, the revered poet accumulated more than forty honorary degrees. He also won the Pulitzer Prize four times for his books, New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree.

Frost considered himself a "lone wolf" in the world of poetry because he did not follow any literary movements. His only influence was the human condition in a world of duality. He did not pretend to explain that condition; he only sought to create little dramas to reveal the nature of the emotional life of a human being.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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