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Tricked by Robert Frost's "Birches"

Updated on April 22, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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"

Robert Frost's second most widely known poem, "Birches," has suffered an inaccurate interpretation that equals the inaccurate call-to-nonconformity so often foisted onto "The Road Not Taken."

At times when readers misinterpret poems, they demonstrate more about themselves than they do about the poem. They are guilty of “reading into a poem” that which is not there on the page but is, in fact, in their own minds.

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 reads his poem, "Birches"

Commentary

Robert Frost claimed that his poem, "The Road Not Taken," was a very tricky poem. He was correct, but other poems written by Frost have proved to be tricky as well.

Readers Tricked by "Birches"

Robert Frost claimed that his poem “The Road Not Taken” was a tricky poem, but he knew that any one of his poems was likely to trick the over-interpreter or the immature, self-involved reader.

The following lines from Robert Frost’s “Birches” have been interpreted as referring to a young boy learning the pleasures of self-gratification:

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

About those lines, one such overly-physical-minded reader once claimed: “The lexical choices used to describe the boy’s activities are unmistakeably s*xual and indicate that he is discovering more than a love of nature.”

Indeed, one could accurately interpret that the boy is discovering something "more than the love of nature," but what he is discovering (or has discovered actually since the poem is one of nostalgic looking back) is the spiritual pull of the soul upward toward heaven, not the downward sinking of the mind into sexual dalliance.

In the Mind of the Beholder, Not on the Page

That reader’s interpretation of s*xuality from these lines simply shows the interpretive fallacy of “reading into” a poem that which is not there, and that reader's proposition that “the boy’s activities are unmistakeably s*xual” exhausts reason or even common sense.

The “lexical choices” that have tricked this reader are, no doubt, the terms “riding,” “stiffness,” “hung limp,” and “launching out too soon.” Thus that reader believes that Robert Frost wants his audience to envision a tall birch tree as a metaphor for a penis: at first the “tree (male member)” is “stiff (ready for employment),” and after the boy ”rides them (has his way with them),” they hang “limp (are satiated).”

And from riding the birches, the boy learns to inhibit “launching out too soon (premature release).” It should be obvious that this is a ludicrous scene that borders on the obscene.

But because all of these terms refer quite specifically to the trees, not to the male genitalia or s*xual activity, and because there is nothing else in the poem to make the reader understand them to be metaphorical, the thinker who applies a s*xual interpretation is quite simply guilty of reading into the poem that which is not in the poem but quite obviously is in the thinker's mind.

Some beginning readers of poems believe that a poem always has to mean something other than what is stated. They mistakenly think that nothing in a poem can taken literally, but everything must be a metaphor, symbol, or image that stands in place of something else. And they often strain credulity grasping at the unutterably false notion of a "hidden meaning" behind the poem.

That Unfortunate Reader Not Alone

That reader is not the only uncritical thinker to be tricked by Frost’s “Birches.” Distinguished critic and professor emeritus of Brown University, George Monteiro, once scribbled: “To what sort of boyhood pleasure would the adult poet like to return? Quite simply; it is the pleasure of onanism.” Balderdash! The adult male remains completely capable of self-gratification; he need not engage boyhood memories to commit that act.

One is coaxed to advise Professor Monteiro and all of those who fantasize self-gratification in "Birches" to keep their minds above their waists while engaging in literary criticism and commentary.

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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