Robert Frost: "Birches"
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A poem by Robert Frost

Robert Frost reads "Birches"

An interpretation (kill the sound!)

WHEN I see birches bend to left and right
Across the line of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them 5
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 10
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 15
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. 20
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows— 25
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 30
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 35
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, 40
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 45
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. 50
May no fate wilfully 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, 55
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. 60

Source: Modern American Poetry (1919)


What is the general structure of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”?
How do the parts relate to each other and how does the tone of the poem shift through its various parts?
What is Frost’s attitude towards life as expressed in the poem?

In my introduction I will give a brief survey of the meter of “Birches” and explain what I mean by the different phases of the poem.
“Birches” is written in blank verse, which means that it is unrhymed and that each line is supposed to follow the stress pattern of iambic pentameter This pattern may show more or less irregularities.

“Birches” is divided into three different sections. Section one is from the beginning to line 20, section two is from line 21 to line 40 and section three is from line 41 to the end of the poem.
The first section describes reality, the effect of the powers of nature upon the birches. This first section of the poem can be divided into smaller sections due to differences in rhythm and meaning.
We find the first unit from line one to line four. Each line is perfectly regular, following the prescribed pattern of the iambic pentameter. Concerning the meaning of these four lines, it can be regarded as an introduction to section two, as well as to the whole poem.
The first unit is effectively contrasted by the rest of the first section. The change from the regularity, from the more or less ideal imaginary world, into reality, is forced on the reader by the use of four stressed syllables after each other.
“Ice storms do that”
The rest of section one is on the whole describing how nature is influenced by the winter storms.
Yet a difference can be noticed between the lines 5-13 and the lines 14-20
In the second unit of section one (5-13) the poem describes how the power of nature influences the birches, and in the third unit we see the results of this treatment.

In the second section the poet deals with an ideal world, the world as he wants it to be. In the beginning of this section he refers to what he attempted to say in the first unit of section one, “when Truth broke in”
The first unit of section two (l. 21-27) describes what kind of boy Frost wants to “bend the birches”, while the second unit (l. 28-32) deals with what the boy does and the results of this.
How the boy acts to achieve the desired “swinging” of the birches is explained in the third unit (l. 29-40)
“One by one he subdued his father’s trees” by climbing them until his weight forced them to swing him down to the ground. This is a beautiful image of the Platonic epistemology, according to which learning is the development of ideas buried deep in the soul. When an Idea is "learned" it is actually just "recalled"
As Plato’s ideas are kept in a “World of Ideas” high above the “World of Shadows” in which we live, we shall have to “stretch ourselves” mentally if we want to gain wisdom and Truth.
The young boy climbing the birches may visualize this urge for the real meaning of life.

In the third section of the poem Frost describes all his “considerations” and how he would enjoy to be a swinger of birches again (as he once has been)
This section can be divided into two units. In the first (l. 41-49) we meet a poet who is disillusioned and weary and who is longing for an escape from all his troubles.
In the last unit, however, the poet states that he has no other alternative than this world. He loves it and does not intend to leave it except in the sense of climbing away from it temporarily.

When we discuss Frost’s attitude towards life, we have to bear in mind the two main epistemological visions:
The empirical vision stating that only the phenomena which the human mind is able to conceive are real, and,
the transcendental vision with its belief in super-natural elements incomprehensible to the human mind.
The question is to what kind of ideology Frost belongs. In my opinion a study of this poem gives us evidence enough to understand that. This understanding will be essential to be able to clarify his attitude to life.

The birch-trees in the poem symbolize human lives. Already in the first line Frost describes the birches as bent “to left and right”. I interpret this to mean that man occupies a central position, “central” in the sense that we are placed between the two extremes of Heaven and Earth.
How can the birches be bent down? What kind of immense power has influenced the formerly straight trees?
One solution may be that of the empiricist, that all the experiences collected may lie as a burden on the weak human backs, as emphasized by the line “Ice-storms do that” (l. 5)
It seems that this explanation is the only rational one for Frost (ref. l. 21-22)
What Frost prefers, however, is quite another thing (l. 23 ->)
If we can accept that the boy in the poem symbolizes the human quest for a deeper meaning of life, then another and more visionary Frost appears.
We will see a poet who knows that there is more in nature than it is possible for man to understand. This “Something” which is lying beyond, cannot be anything else than a divine power.
In line 56 the “black branches up a snow-white trunk toward heaven” may symbolize experiences leading us closer to this supernatural element. Having reached a certain point, however, man realizes his inability to see and understand the entire truth. He is put back to earth again by the discovery of his own insignificance. The process of this mental accumulation (l. 37-41) is excellently pictured.
Frost draws a parallel between the struggle to reach the very top of the birch-tree and “the pains you use to fill a cup Up to the brim, and even above the brim”. Just as impossible it is for man to understand the meaning of life.
According to Plato, however, it is man’s primary duty in life to search for real Truth, to “recall” the perfect vision of the World of Ideas from which we all come. In order to achieve that we have to engage our mental abilities in a progressive mental process leading towards a universal cognition of the subject matter. If we succeed, we have recalled the real Platonic Idea.
This mental progression can be symbolized by a ladder. Each step up the ladder is a step closer to wisdom and happiness. In the poem Frost chooses other physical objects to exemplify the same process, the birches.
He states that life may be tiresome and filled with all kinds of “considerations”. On your way through life you may face difficulties and problems too difficult to be easily solved, and you may be unexpectedly surprised by matters which you thought were properly examined and comprehended (l. 45-48)
In situations as described above Frost dreams of being “a swinger of birches”. He wants to leave this world of realities for a while.
As indicated above there are definitely certain transcendental elements in the poem. Frost is playing with the idea of a higher power in life and nature, a power which may solve all the difficulties and fill the earthly emptiness with meaning.
However, the poet does not state this as the whole truth. He only wants a short escape from the trivialities of the world, as “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”

A short summary of my impression of Frost is that he has a very flexible view on life. He is an empiricist with his mind open for other and wider possibilities. To some extent it seems to me that he wishes reality, life, to be something more than just piles of generalized experiences.
Having read “Birches” the impression of mine is that Frost shows an optimistic attitude towards life. If man is not able to comprehend the entire Truth lying beyond, he is at least able to absorb glimpses of it by ‘climbing birches’.

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oppdatert 15.12.2015

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