Birches: Poem by Robert Frost - Summary and Analysis

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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.
Ice-storms do that. 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-coloured
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.

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. Ice-storms do that. 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-coloured As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Summary and Analysis


      Birches was published in 1916, in Mountain Interval, a volume of poems published by Frost. It is very widely quoted and is found in almost every anthology of Frost's nature-poems. The poem is strikingly remarkable for blending subtle fact and fancy, observation and imagination. C. Day Lewis feels that this poem is an example of the characteristics of Frost's poetry, and any study of his poetry should begin from here. He says that this is a poem in which observation and reminiscence, realism and fancy, the light tone and the serious, are perfectly blended; it moves with beautiful assurance from mood to mood, image to image, thought to thought: its variations of speed within the blank-verse-metre are masterly.


      The poem commences on an easy note and a conversational tone. When the poet sees birches bent to left and right and contrasted against 'darker, straighter trees' he loves to think that some boy had been swinging them. As he hops around in this light mood, the truth strikes him with a dazzling intensity - he realises that the boy's swinging cannot bend down the birches for ever. Ice falling with a great speed that bends down birches for ever. The poet observes all natural phenomena minutely. He observes the snow covered branches of birches and sees the rays of sunlight splitting into its seven colours as they pass through ice. Here Frost displays his keen sense of perception and observation. As the rays of sunlight grow in strength the ice falls to the ground and mingles with sound on the ground. The crystals of ice are small, transparent and very fragile - the poet uses a very fresh and original phrase for this. The burden of ice, of snow, makes the branches of the birches bend low and touch the ground.

      This was the fact, the Truth about the birches that had hampered the progress of the poet's fancy. The poet, however, manages to resume his mood. He imagines that it is some boy who has devised this game which he can play and enjoy throughout the year. He enjoys birch swinging and climbs and bends every tree. With hard labour, he has acquired the skill of maintaining his balance even at the highest point. The poet remembers wistfully that he had also been a swinger of birches when he was a boy. He feels that he would continue to be a swinger of birches. When he would get fed up of this world, he would find relief in birch swinging. By climbing the bent branches of birches, he would go heavenward tor some time and then come back to the earth. The poet would not like to leave this earth for ever. He would like to leave this earth, only when sure that he would come back.

Critical Appreciation:

      This lyric brings out some of the aspects of Frost's art. As usual, Frost has succeeded in reconciling the apparent opposites, fact and imagination. He observes the facts of this earth and presents them, dressed in vivid and picturesque imagery. Giving an introduction to the poem in a collection of poems by Robert Frost, Untermeyer brings out almost all the qualities of the poem: Fact and fancy play together throughout the poem. The crystal ice becomes heaps of broken glass: "You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen". The arched trees are transformed into girls on hands and knees 'that throw their hair before them over their heads to dry in the sun'. The country boy whose only play was what he found himself, riding and subduing his father's birches, becomes the nature poet who announces:

Earth's the right place for love
I don't know where it's likely to go better.

      Thus wisdom and whimsy "join to make a poem that delights the mind and endears itself to the heart. The popularity of Birches lies in its combination of picture and human appeal. It is all the more appealing because of the shrewd turns and the rare twinkle".

      This poem is remarkable for the series of word paintings which the reader observes in the poem from the very beginning. It is a striking picture of nature and man rendered in terms of prominent imagery - imagery combining both fact and fancy. Each image brings out the importance of the other images in all its prominence.

      The essence of the poem is contained in the fact that emerges from the poem-basically, the poet loves this earth. Elizabeth Jennings points out that in Birches, Frost shows a yearning for a movement that is heavenward but also declares emphatically "Earth's the right place for love", and goes on to pinpoint his preference for the immediate, tangible world, and his capacity to manage without too much of transcendentalism.

      Birches is in blank metre and has served a specific purpose - the purpose of narration combined with reflection. Though not of as high an order as that of some of Wordsworth's poems, the blank verse of Birches has an excellence of its own.

It's when I'm weary of considerations,
I don't know where it's likely to go better.

      In these lines the poet gives expression to his innate love for the life of this earth, despite its drawbacks. Frost here gives a clear picture of his feelings for this world and life on this earth. He has been able to convey with conviction that he basically loves this earth though he has often got bored and tired because of the toil and strife it demands. The poet recalls nostalgically that as a boy he had been a swinger of birches. He wishes and hopes to remain a swinger of birches in time to come because he feels that swinging birches gives relief to his worried and tensioned mind at least for some time. There was a time when he was haunted by all kinds of doubts and perplexities and life seemed to be dull and gloomy to him. Frost felt that life was an impenetrable jungle whence it was almost impossible to find out the best course of life. The 'face burning and tickling with the cobwebs broken across it suggests the confusion, exhausted bewilderment that the poet sometimes had to face while taking a plunge in the issues of life. The anxieties, the worries, the disappointments that welcomed the poet, made him desire to seek an escape from them and he took refuge in the act of swinging birches. But the poet wishes simultaneously, that his escape from this world of sound and fury should not be lasting - he wants to come back to the world. He wants to come back and live on earth because it is his firm conviction that the earth is like an oyster, hiding pearls of joy within it. He feels that the power of love is enough to hold him back and make him want to live the rest of his life here on this earth. He also states very clearly that if fate grants only half of his desire, he would be very unlucky. The poet reiterates that he has an intense desire of coming back to this earth. As far as he can imagine, there is no place that is better than earth.

      Birches has been called an 'extended nature lyric'. But the pastoral element in the poem entails 'a corresponding human situation'. The pastoral pastime of swinging on birches is made out to be a metaphor of man's position vis-a-vis illusion and reality, the ironical charm of escapism and the needed return to the earth.

      The poem offers the best example of the poet's power to blend observation and imagination. A mingling of wisdom and fancy makes it a delightful poem the popularity of which consists in its combination of pictures and human appeal. The swing of the birches implies the ideal human attitude finely balanced between a pragmatic acceptance of life as it is on earth and a sense of dissatisfaction with it.

May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant me what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return.

What is the reason for this request?

Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it is likely to go better.

      This is a poem, according to many critics, in which observation and reminiscence, realism and fancy, the light tone and the serious are perfectly blended. This blend of opposites enriches the texture of the lyric. It exhibits the symbolic metaphysical structure of modern poetry. The thought is developed metaphorically. Beginning with a simple and concrete description of the 'habits' of birches and the changes brought about by storms and ice, the poem becomes a parable of human aspirations.

      In this lyric is present the 'ache of modernity - the feeling of anxiety, helplessness and frustration, and the desire to escape from it all. Life refuses to show an easy path, and man has to find his weary way through:

A pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig having lashed across it open.

      In terms of language and style too the poem shows traits of modernity. Simple and clear language is employed. The movement and rhythm is most appropriate to the sense and thought conveyed. The modern image of worthless heaps of broken glass is used as a simile for the shattered ice crystals. Immediately the image is transformed into the next image, that of the fall of the dome of heaven. The images shift into succeeding images till at the end the poem achieves a complex significance.


      Line. 7-8. They click...breeze rises - When the wind blows, the branches wearing a mantle of snow, strike against each other, producing a sound similar to the sound that is produced when iron is struck against iron.

      Line. 8-9. And turn many colored...their enamel - In these lines is a fine description of natural phenomenon and we observe Frost's sharp power of observation. When the wind starts blowing, even a mild ray of sunlight passing through ice breaks up into the multi-coloured glory of the rainbow. The imagery in these lines make us get the feel of gloss, shine and splendor.

      Line. 10. Soon the sun's...sliells - Briches let the snow crystals fall very fast on the snow. They make a thick covering. They appear to be making a vehement attack on the snow covered ground.

      Line. 12-13. Such heaps....had fallen - These lines are sinking for originality of the unique and lovely simile employed in these lines. These lines also show that from the start, the poet has his ideas revolving around and emanating trom the concept of heaven. The poet feels, that the crystals of ice are like 'heaps of broken glass'. He goes on to think that the crystals of ice are really pieces of the dome of heaven that has fallen down.

      Line. 14. Withered bracken - Bracken is the name of a fern found abundantly on heaths, hillsides etc. It has been described as 'withered because from its appearance, it seemed to have dried up and had become dreary.

      Line. 21-22. storm - The truth, the reality, the fact about the bending of the birches suddenly intrudes upon his mind and obstructs he progress of his fancy which led him to feel that the Ranches had been bent down by some birch-swinger. One must notice here that the word Truth begins with a capital letter. This implies that truth here dawns with the force of a living presence. It is almost personified. This is a significant moment for the poet and he wants us to notice it.

      Line. 26-27. Whose only...alone - This boy was quite unlike other boys who love playing with their fellows. This boy who is fond of swinging birches likes being left alone in his gamers game delighted him because he extracted pleasure out of it, through his own efforts. He played this game in all seasons.

      Line. 28-32 One conquer - It may perhaps be useful to throw some biographical light on these lines. Frost describes this play with an immediacy and a real feel, the touch of it. Frost himself used to play this game. He would climb birches and swing from the top till the supple branches bent down to touch the ground.

      Line. 32-38 He learned....above the brim - The boyish interest and practice had made him an expert swinger of birches. Gradually, he had acquired the skill necessary for it; so much so he was able to maintain a subtle balance, even when he had reached the top.

      Line. 44-45. And life...the cobwebs - "The pathless wood and 'the cobwebs' are symbolic of the confusion and bewilderment, of Man who is nonplussed. It is very difficult for Man to breast his way through, hurdled ways and labyrinthine cobwebs of problems.

Line. 46-47. And one open - When one's faiths, ideas, hopes are belied, it is a Herculean task to reconcile with the shattered world. These ines symbolise the pain, terror, horror, surprise, agony and frustration that accompany any disillusionment. Disillusionment is the only final reality of this wordily life.

      Line. 54-56. I'd like....toward heaven - These lines, simple in verbal meaning are important for their symbolic import. For the poet, the act of climbing the birch tree higher and higher is like ascending higher and higher towards Heaven. It means much more than an unknown pleasant world. It epitomises the world of imagination, a world sans the fret and fever of this world, a soothing retreat from the harsh reality and an optimistic maintenance of spiritual aspirations and dreams.

      Line. 57-58. But dipped...coming back - The poet wants to ascend towards Heaven. He longs that he should be able to come back to earth. He wants to feel the exhilaration and thrill of rising up coupled with the happy satisfaction of coming back to earth.


      This lyric is an epitome of the 'ache of modernity' and presents with candour and intensity, the predicament of the modern Man. Anxiety, frustration, helplessness, disillusionment and despair go together with life in a city and Frost has been able to bring this home to us in an efficacious manner. The poem rings a bell in our mind and we unconsciously think of Keats-'s Ode to a Nightingale where the poet wants to fade away into the world of the Nightingale. But there is a difference. Keats cannot bear this world, but Frost is in love with life and earth and wants to come back. As usual, the language is simple and lucid. Concluding our study of the poem, we can rightly say that this is a poem in which we find a sustained movement of sense, feeling and rhythm right from the beginning to the end.

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