Birches by Robert Frost

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.
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.

Summary and Analysis

In Birches Frost begins to explore the command of his redemptive imagination as it shifts from its mischievous segment towards the verge of dangerous transcendence. It is the movement of a fundamental imaginative freedom where all possibilities of commitment with the ordinary realities of experience are liquefied. Birches commences by inducing its central reflection against the backdrop of an enigmatically forested setting. The flexible, supple feature of the birch tree arrests the attention of the poet and he completely loses his contemplation. When he sees the bent birch trees, he insists on imagining that they are bent because boys have been ‘swinging’ on them, though his realistic self knows that the ultimate shape of the mature birch trees is not by human activity but the work of objective natural force like the ice storms. Yet he prefers his apparition of a boy climbing a tree cautiously and then swinging at the tree’s crest to the earth. He crosses all boundaries of imagination as he is subject to this kind of connection himself and dreams of going back to those days of happiness and glory. His constricted self is released as he links the swinging of the birches to ‘getting away from the earth awhile’ and then coming back to reality.

The poem moves to and fro between two visual perceptions – birch trees as bent by the boys’ playful swinging and by the severe ice storms. It is the theme of imagination contradicting the darker realities that the speaker expresses through the bent birch trees. Almost a third of the poem illustrates how ice storms bend these trees permanently, unlike the action of the boys – this mingles images of magnificence and distortion, of imagination and realism. Ice shells suggest radiating glow and kindle, and the trees curved to the level of the bracken imply suffering, which is instantly lightened by the strange representation of girls inclining their hair towards the sun as if in contented compliance. The boy’s fancied liveliness substitutes for unavailable company as he seeks his solicitous commune with nature which helps to teach him wisdom and confidence. Although it is the ice storms that damage the birches permanently and the boy’s injure is a temporary one, according to the speaker it is the boy who suppresses and surmounts the tree. It is his swinging that makes him practice for sustaining life’s complicated and uncertain equilibrium.

The third part of the poem is in a more personal and philosophical tone when the speaker claims to have been a youthful swinger of birches himself. He can reach those prime days of his life only through his dream. The birch trees, bent probably by both the swinging of the boy and the ice-storms, might stand for that parameter and power that is missing from the regular occurrences of life. The ‘considerations’ that he is ‘weary’ of are inconsistent assertions that leave him confused and hurt. The wish to ‘get away from earth awhile’ shows a longing for the ultimate or it can be just as momentary as the imaginative isolation of the birch swinger. The speaker’s exclamation ‘I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree …toward heaven’ suggests his desperate desire to leave earth. But he controls himself immediately and reveals with his quick apologetic claim that he actually doesn’t mean anything like that at all. He wants to come down again towards earth and thus his main quest seems to be a persistent balance between realism and idealism at its best. The last few lines are very contemplative lines of Frost and so this becomes his most sarcastic writing. He ponders upon a moment when the soul may become absolutely absorbed into unification with the divine; but he is earthbound and frightened. No sooner does he wish to get away from earth than he starts thinking of ‘fate’ rather than God. And sarcastically what might have been a mystical experience turns out into a fear of death – the fear that he would be snatched away and never allowed to ‘return’. Immediately he rejects the unknown, the love of God, because he does not know and he feels safe to cling on to the finite –‘Earth’s the right place for love.’

Although the title of the poem is Birches, the main theme is on the ‘swinging of the birches’. The strength behind it comes from contrary pulls – reality and imagination, ground and paradise, organizing and desertion, physical and the spirit, departure and arrival. It is about the motion the two poles – the movement that takes an imaginary leap and then settles back to reality. The whole thrust of the poem is upwards, towards imagination and escape, but the pull is downwards, towards actuality and attachment.

This poem is written in blank verse and while writing this poem, Frost was inspired by his childhood experience with swinging on birches, which was a popular game for children in rural areas of New England during the time. In the poem, the act of swinging on birches is presented as a way to escape the hard rationality or ‘Truth’ of the adult world, even if it is only for a moment. As the boy climbs up the tree, he is climbing toward ‘heaven’ and a place where his imagination can be free. But a swinger is still grounded in the earth through the roots of the tree as he climbs, but he is able to reach beyond his normal life on the earth and reach for a higher plane of existence. Frost highlights the narrator’s regret that he can no longer find this peace of mind from swinging on birches; as he is an adult, he is unable to leave his responsibilities behind and climb toward heaven until he can start fresh on the earth. Notably, the narrator’s yearning to escape from the rational world is indecisive. He wants to escape as a boy climbing towards heaven, but he also wants to return to the earth: both ‘going and coming back.’ The freedom of imagination is appealing and astounding, but the narrator still cannot avoid returning to ‘Truth’ and his responsibilities on the earth – the escape is only a momentary one.

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