The poet describes birches which bend down with the load of ice after a snowstorm and sometimes with the weight of a climber. When the load/weight is removed the birches go up. As a boy, the poet had been a swinger of birches. Now he again wants to go up on a birch, to escape from the troubles of life, but only for some time, and then come down again.
About the Poet
Highly honoured and loved in his lifetime, Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in San Franciso, California on March 26, 1874. His early life was full of struggle as his father died quite early. He received education at the village school where his mother taught. After finishing school education he joined the Dartmouth College in Hanover, but he left it as he had no liking for studies. He wanted to marry Elinor White who refused to marry him until they completed their education. He had already started writing poems when he was at school.
In order to earn money he tried his hands at various odd jobs. He moved from job to job, from working in mills to newspaper reporting and then to teaching and even farming. But unluckily, he could not stick to any job and was far from being happy and satisfied.
In 1912, he moved to England where he came into contact with Ezra Pound and other British poets. His poetic career took off with his first collection of poems A Boy’s Will (1913) . He returned to America in 1915. With the American edition of A Boy’s Will he was accepted as a major poet His collections of poems began to appear regularly, which brought him critical acclaim, honours and rewards. He won four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry. Among his well-known poems are ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Mending Wall’, ‘Birches’, ‘The Gift Outright’, ‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘After Apple-Picking’, ‘Fire and Ice’, etc.
In his poetry Frost has used traditional rhyme and metre but his approach to verse is modern. Like modern poets, there is subtle use of symbols, economy of expression and a certain vagueness in his poetry. The surface simplicity of his poem is only deceptive.
About the Poem
‘Birches’ is one of the most anthologised nature-lyrics of Frost. Birches – forest trees with slender, flexible branches that can easily swing down and up – are a common sight in New England. The poet watches the bent-down birches and comes to imagine that some boy might have resorted to birch swinging and as such the birches are bent down. Then he realizes that the branches of birches are bent down with the load of the ice after snowstorm. He goes on describing the scene in detail. Then he recalls how the rural boys wing birches in their spare time. Once he, too, enjoyed going up and down on a birch when he was a boy. He wants to do the boy’s act of swinging on these trees. His wish to go up results from his desire to escape from weals and woes of his life but he does not want to remain up. He wants to come down, back on the earth, to do his earthly duties.
Obviously, the poem’s message is that we should do our duty on the earth but should not stop aspiring for higher and noble ideals without which no progress is possible. In taking a flight to the realm of imagination (going up on a birch) we should remember that we have to come back to the world of reality (the earth), not out of any compulsion but for the love of it.
The poem is open to various interpretations. It brings together such contraries as fact and fancy, reality and imagination, heaven and earth, etc.
Bent-down Birches : When the poet sees birches bent down after a snowstorm he tends to imagine that some boy must have bent them down by swinging on them. He fails to notice that the branches of birches are bent down with the load of the ice, as they cannot be bent down permanently by the swinging of boys.
Birches on a Sunny Winter Morning : When it stops raining the branches of birches are covered with ice. On a sunny winter morning the ice on these branches begin to shine and reflect seven colours of the rainbow as the sunlight passes through the ice. As the warmth of the sun increases, the ice is shaken and is cracked. It falls on the earth with a cracking sound. The small pieces of ice thrown on the earth appear to be the pieces of broken glass as if the inner dome of heaven has fallen down.
Scene of Bent-down Birches : The poet says that the branches of birches sometimes come down to the level of dry fern growing on the earth. They bend down so much but they do not get broken. They remain bowed down for such a long time that they do not straighten themselves. Their trunks lie bent down for years together. They keep their leaves trailing on the ground like the girls sitting with their hair over their heads in order to dry them in the sun.
A Fanciful Idea : As the speaker describes the birches bowed down with the load of the ice, he at once has a fanciful idea. He begins to imagine that some boy might have climbed and bent the birches down. The boy who lived far away from the town to learn and play urban games like baseball had devised this game – the game of swinging birches – which he could play all alone.
Wild Swinging by the Boy : The boy had climbed all the birches owned by his father one by one. By doing so he had bent them. All the branches had become limp and none could stand erect. No tree was left unconquered and unbent by the boy. The boy learnt not to come down with the birch swiftly to the earth. He learnt the poise to climb the top branches carefully. Then he would fling himself forward with his feet stretched and come down gently to touch the ground.
The Poet’s desire to be a Swinger of Birches : In a reminiscent mood, the speaker recalls the time when he himself was a swinger of birches. He feels that the could take to birch swinging once again, particularly when he is tired of his musings. He would like to be lifted away from the earth on the branch of a some birch tree, but he would like to come down after having lifted above momentarily.
Balance between the Two Worlds : The speaker makes it clear that his desire to escape from his troubles by going upward on a branch of birch does not mean that he does not want to return. Going up is as desirable as coming down. The earth is a desirable place to live in the spirit of love. If a man does not like to be a swinger of birches and live in the two worlds of fact and fancy, he should be regarded as a man worse than a swinger of birches.
Line by Line Explanation
‘When I see ………. As ice-storms do’.
When I observe birches bending to left and right across the lines of straightly erected dark trees in the woods, I tend to think that some boy has been swinging them. But I soon realize that branches of birches do not remain so bent down by swinging as they do by the ice-storms.
‘Often you …….. had fallen’.
You must have often seen birches loaded with ice on a sunny winter morning after the rain. When the wind blows, birches swing up and down with the clicking sound. The ice on the birches shines and turns many coloured as the rays of the sun are refracted in passing through it. Soon the warmth of the sun increases and the ice on birches is shaken and breaks down into fragments to fall down on the earth. These pieces of shining ice resemble pieces of broken glass. One would think as if the inner dome of the heaven had been broken into pieces and the earth is covered with heaps of broken glass.
‘They are ……… in the sun’.
With the burden of the ice birches are bowed very low to the level of the dry fern growing on the earth, but they still do not break. They are bent down so much and for so long that they do are not in a position to straighten themselves. Their trunks lie arched in the forest for several years. They keep their leaves trailing on the ground , like the girls sitting on their hands and knees, spreading their hair over their heads to dry in the sun.
‘But I was ………. play alone’.
There is no doubt that the reality is that birches are bent down by the snowstorm. Yet I should prefer them to have been bent by the cowherd. The boy might have swung them in his spare time. I think the boy, looking after his cows and living far away from the town to learn baseball, might have devised a game for himself – the game of birch swinging. This game he could play alone in summer or winter.
‘One by one ……… clear to the ground’.
The boy found the game of birch-winging very thrilling. That is why, he had climbed all the birches owner by his father, and bent them all down as if he wanted to conquer them all. No tree could stand erect as its stiffness was gone. He learnt the skill to maintain perfect balance even when he reached the top so that he could come down swiftly to the ground.
‘He always ………. to the ground’.
The boy used to climb the top branches with so much care as you take while filling a cup to the brim or even about the brim. Then he would fling himself forward with his feet stretched. He would pass gently through the air to the ground.
‘So was I ………… it open’.
Once I myself was a swinger of birches. I want to become a birch swinger once again. When I am fed up with my thoughts, when life becomes hard to live, when confusion and uncertainties (‘cobwebs’) trouble me, when some twig pinches my eye, I would very much like to escape from this earth for some time.
Lines 48 – 53
‘I’d like ………. go better’.
I would like to go up, away from the earth, but only for a while. I would like to come back on the earth to resume my earthly duties. No one including fate should misunderstand me lest I should be granted the half wish to go up, and not to come down. I want to come back to the earth for ‘Earth’s the right place for love’.
Lines 54 – 59
‘I’d like ………. birches’.
I would like to climb a birch and go up towards heaven till the tree, unable to bear my burden, brings me down and sets me on the earth again. It would be good for me to go from, and come back to, the earth, as one does while swinging. If a man does not like to be a swinger of birches and live in the two worlds of fact and fancy, he will worse than a birch swinger . [In other words, one must have higher aspirations and ideals in life (‘going up on a birch’) and should do earthly duties (‘coming down on the earth’). It is not desirable to be a total escapist, nor it is essential to be a dry realist or earthy.]
In ‘Birches’ Frost brings home the idea that we should have a balance between our routine work on earth (‘reality’) and high ideals or aspirants. He conveys this idea by using the central metaphor of birches. Going up on the birch symbolises the higher world of human ideals, the human desire to withdraw from harsh realities of life the happy world of imagination. Each one of us has this desire. But it is not possible or desirable to remain ‘up’ in the world of imagination forever. One who goes up needs to come down at last. That is why, the poet asserts:
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
…………. Earth’s the right place for love.
He wants a momentary escape from the troubles of the earth, only to return to it to enjoy all the charms it provides. Here we are reminded of Keat’s similar desire in his ‘Ode to Nightingale’. Even when we ‘escape’ from our troubles we should keep in mind Keat’s message that ‘the poetry of earth is never dead’. This is what Frost wants us to remember in our troubled times.
Literary Devices Used in the Poem
- ‘Birches’ in the poem have symbolic import. The upward movement of birches symbolises higher ideals and spiritual aspirations, whereas their downward movement symbolises coming back to earth, that is, reality.
- ‘Heaven’ symbolises the perfect world, whereas ‘Earth’ symbolises the world of harsh reality.
- life is likened to ‘pathless wood’ (line 44)
- confusions in life are likened to cobwebs (line 45)
- Trailing of leaves by tree trunks has been compared to the way the girls throw their hair on their heads to dry in the sun :
- ‘Like girls on hands ……. in the sun’ (lines 19-20)
- Life is compared to ‘a pathless wood’ :
And life is too much like a pathless wood (line 44)
- Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells (‘s’ and ‘sh’ sounds)
- That would be good both going and coming back. (‘g’ sound)
A Nature-Lyric : In form ‘Birches’ is a nature-lyric. It is simple, at least on the surface level and embodies one single emotional experience. It deals with one of the most familiar sights in nature in New England – the sight of birches which can go up and down. Birch swinging by boys is a common experience.
Despite the surface simplicity of this lyric, it can be interpreted at many levels.
Form and Structure : The lyric, having 59 lines, is written in blank verse, and its rhythm is irregular with an emphasis on the ‘sound of sense’. The line length is determined by the rhythm of movement. The rhythm is slow and steady when the poet indulges in moralising, as in these lines:
It’s when I’m weary of consideration,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Title : The title of the poem ‘Birches’ is apt and suggestive. Its aptness is clear because it is used as a central metaphor for the main theme of the poem. The branches of birches wing up and down. Going up in the air while birch swinging becomes a symbol of escaping from harsh realities of the world into the world of fancy. It is also a symbol of higher human ideals and aspirations. Coming down on the earth with the birch means accepting the reality as it is and doing all earthly duties. The poet makes it clear that as in birch swinging, going up and coming down are both desirable. Man must attain a balance between his work on earth and his spiritual aspirations.
Modern Poem : Surface simplicity of Frost’s poetry is always deceptive. The poem ‘Birches’, too, has surface simplicity with a complex structure of a modern verse. Such opposites as fact and fancy , earth and heaven, reality and imagination, etc. are made to coalesce into a unified whole. The poem opens on a simple observation about birch swinging. As it progresses, simple words acquire metaphorical meanings. Going up on a birch can be read as entering into a higher spiritual or ideal domain. Or it can be a simple escape from reality into a fanciful world. Or it can be read as entering heaven after death.
Use of Imagery : The poem appeals to us because it relies for its effect on the use of brilliant, sensuous imagery from the world of nature. There are some beautiful visual images, as :
- Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
- ………. their trunks arching in the woods
- ………. 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.
Kinesthetic (sensations of movement) images also abound in the poem; as,
- ……….. one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
- After a rain. They click upon themselves
- Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish
- The last two images above are also auditory in nature.