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Analysis of Poem Birches by Robert Frost

Updated on August 31, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Frost
Robert Frost | Source

Robert Frost and Birches

Birches is a poem that takes you into the woods and nearly up to heaven. It is one of the most popular of Frost's blank verse creations and was first published in 1916 in his book Mountain Interval.

In the words of the poet himself, Birches is 'two fragments soldered together', that is, he first intended the poem to have two definite angles - one concentrating on the ice-storm bending birch branches, the other detailing the boy swinging on them.

This is why Frost initially had the title of Swinging Birches, because he preferred the rhythm of the present participle (as in his other poems such as Mending Wall and After Apple Picking for example) to help kickstart his poem.

Frost decided to stick to a single, simple title and, as it stands, Birches became one long exploration of the speaker's relationship to the Truth, split into three aspects:

  • naturalistic (the ice-storm's effect on the birch trees),
  • personal (the boy 'conquering' the trees),
  • philosophical (the balance between reality and idealism).

Although the majority of the poem is written in iambic pentameter, there are considerable movements away from the steady rhythm in certain lines, which we'll explore later on line by line in the analysis.

Birches develops a subtle tension as a result of this deviation alongside meaning, the reader never really knowing if the tree branches will break and crash, due to natural causes, or if the boy's swinging on them is pure fantasy or not.

The poet tests the reader again and again, typical Frost, living up to his famous quote that poetry 'plays perilously between truth and make believe.'

In some respects the poem is an extended metaphor, the birch trees representing creative life itself, their flexibility the fragile support each person needs to strike a balance and to overcome what can be a precarious human existence. Come back down to reality the speaker implies, but enjoy odd moments of freedom.

Real life can be hard, so why not escape into idealism, transcend the mundane, swing a little? Frost chose the former, being a pragmatist, clinging to the finite, occasionally swinging but not too close to heaven.

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.
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 Theme Of Birches

Birches explores the idea of human existence and the limits we can go to as creative, loving beings.

By choosing the tree as a vehicle for potential transcendence, as a means of leaving the earth temporarily, Robert Frost has tapped into the mythological and biblical repositories, where the tree is both life giver and life threatener.

Having been a farmer himself, he will have known of this tree's qualities close up, the birch (Betula populifolia) being a pioneer of soil, of limited longevity and having a feminine appearance. When a sapling, the birch is bendy and pliable.

Birches has four distinct sections:

  • starting in the present - When I see (line 1)
  • moving on into the past - Often you must have seen (line 5)
  • before revisiting the present - And so I dream (line 42)
  • and ending with future wishes - I'd like to get away (line 48)

Within the various areas of action the speaker takes the reader on a journey of sorts, starting with the ubiquitous birches against the darker straight trees and moving on through the process of swinging, which involves ice-storms, a lone boy and lots of wishful thinking.

There are some brilliant descriptive passages as the ice-storm hits the trees and weighs them down (7 - 20). This is Nature at work, making the birches bow their heads to touch the earth in a rather beautiful fashion.

This is first class imagery and is equalled with the manner in which the boy bends the birches (35 - 40), the climb up analagous with that of a cup being filled to the very rim, the thrill of anticipation filling the air.

The speaker contrasts the Truth of natural effects with those of fantasy, of the imagination. Swinging on birches is tantamount to a risky climb up towards heaven and if one isn't careful something might give.

In Nature it is the Sun melting the ice that shatters the hopes of transcendence, a parallel with Shelley's Adonais and the many colored dome of glass, which also breaks.

With these acute observations, like lessons learned, the speaker moves on and informs the reader that he would much prefer the control of a human - the boy - when it comes to swinging on birches. And so it is that the confession in line 41 reveals a small truth - the speaker was the boy - but he's not quite done yet.

The speaker wants to return to this uncertain world, where heaven and earth might meet, for life sometimes becomes too painful and harsh. Does he wish for a second childhood again? Does he want to go back to challenging his father at a time when he was first becoming aware of the female sex?

But, let's not get him wrong, he doesn't want to tempt Fate and end up, well, dead? Or loveless. He's more than aware that the plane of Earth is where we learn about the reality of love.

In the end there is a co-operative solution to this spiritual problem, to work with Nature, with the facts, that keep a person grounded and maintain a balance between what is wished for and what is already in our lives.

Analysis of Birches - Rhythm, Stress and Scansion

Birches is a single stanza poem of 59 lines. It is a blank verse poem because it is unrhymed and in iambic pentameter. Each line should have five feet (10 syllables) and follow the classical, steady da-DUM da-Dum da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM beat, but Birches does not.

Frost altered the meter (metre in UK) of certain lines to help reinforce meaning and to introduce texture and tension for the reader. Some of these departures from the iambic make it a difficult poem to scan in parts and critics over the years have come up with different interpretations.

Some base their findings on the actual spoken version of the poem by Frost, others go by the book and scan the poem according to convention and what seems right to them.

  • This is why there is no definitively perfect scan of certain lines of this poem. Poets and poetry professors alike can agree and disagree but the bottom line is, scansion is something of an art and can't be reduced to set mathematical formulae.
  • For those who are keen on learning about the meter (metre in UK) of this poem, you will find a line by line analysis.

Line By Line Metrical Analysis With Literary Devices

Lines 1 - 4

The first four lines of Birches are iambic pentameter, no doubt. The poet sets up the steady foundational beat as he starts to explore, ten syllables per line, five feet (/):

When I / see bir / ches 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

Note the heavy bold stressed syllables and normal unstressed. Simple, single syllable words are dominant in these opening lines.

  • In the following analysis, lines of pure iambic pentameter are shown in normal type, as are lines 2,3 and 4 above. Lines with metrical variants are marked.

Lines 5 - 9

Enjambment (carrying on a line without punctuation) leads us onto line 5; indeed enjambment takes the reader on to line 9, the ice-storm coming into focus as syntax changes and the line rhythms alter:

As ice- / storms do. / Often / you must / have seen them
Loaded / with ice / a sun / ny wint / er morning
After / a rain. / They click / upon / themselves
As the / breeze ri / ses, and / turn man / y-colored
As the / stir cracks / and cra / zes their / enamel.

As is obvious, pure iambic pentameter has suddenly departed! There are variations on a theme of altered rhythm with these five fascinating lines, four of which have eleven syllables, the same four ending with an unstressed (feminine) syllable. So, trochees and spondees are prevalent, as are pyrrhics and amphibrachs. These combine in a variety of ways to echo the ice-storms rise and fall.

The enjambment meanwhile urges the reader to continue straight on line to line, with little pause, which can sometimes change the way opening words are stressed.

  • Some critics and poets offer different scans for certain of these lines. One aspect that isn't in dispute is the use of hard alliteration in line 9, with cracks and crazes.

Lines 10 - 13

Subtle alliteration, in contrast to the preceding line, adds sibilance and mystery to line 10, and the reader is invited to agree with the speaker as the ice crystals fall and reality is shattered:

Soon the / sun's warmth / makes them / shed cry / stal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think / the in / ner dome / of heaven / had fallen.

Note the use of onomatopoeia in shattering and the four syllable avalanching, quite dramatic use of the present participle. Again, the iambic pentameter is broken (except in line 12), with trochee and spondee. Line 13 is sometimes treated as a twelve syllable line but in this example heaven is taken to be a single syllable, not two.

More Analysis

Lines 14 - 20

There is a hint of rhyme in the following two lines (load/bowed) but this is more accident than design because this is blank verse and there are not supposed to be end rhymes, strictly speaking. Enjambment is used, allowing for sense to run on into the next line with no punctuation:

They are dragged / to the with / ered brack / en 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 arch / ing in / the woods
Years after / wards, trail / ing their / leaves on / the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before / them o / ver their heads / to dry / in the sun.

A mix of meters here: two lines present iambic pentameter, the rest are mixed. Line 14 is particularly stretched out with those opening anapaests reinforcing the assonance of dragged/bracken. The spondee in line 18 prolongs the time scale somewhat and the simile that follows creates a wonderful feminine image.

All in all this section is full of prepositions, note: to the, by the, in the, on the - signifying the end of the ice-storm and an attempt to get back on track with the real narrative.

Further Analysis

Lines 21 - 27

The speaker returns to the idea of the boy swinging on the birches, from line 3, instead of the ice-storm. This section maintains the steady iambic undertones but peppers the lines with trochees now and then (inverted iambs), whilst anapaests occasionally intervene:

But I / was go / ing to say / when Truth / broke in
With all / her mat / ter-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 win / ter, and / could play / alone.

Note the alliteration here and there and the emphasis on ten syllable lines (23-27), suggesting that this is almost a return to the speaker's idea of normality.

Birches Analysis

Lines 28 - 40

The next eleven lines concentrate on the boy's actions and again are full of variations on a theme of iambic. Two of the lines are pure iambic pentameter, the rest reveal trochees, spondees, pyrrhics and anapaest, slowing down then speeding up proceedings, reflecting the action of the lone boy:

One by / one he / subdued / his fa / ther's trees
By rid / ing them down / over / and o / ver again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not / one but / hung limp, / not one / was left
For him / to con / quer. He / learned all / there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so / not car / ry ing / the tree / away
Clear to / the ground. / He al / ways kept / his poise
To the / top branch / es, climb / ing care / fully
With the / same pains / you use / to fill / a cup
Up to / the brim, / and e / ven a bove / the brim.
Then he / flung out / ward, feet / first, with / a swish,
Kicking / his way / down through / the air / to the ground.

Note the subtle use of internal consonance - them/them/limp/him/climbing/brim/brim. And alliteration pops up in several lines.

Analysis

Lines 41 - 53

The speaker declares himself a swinger of birches; he could be the boy. Metrically some of these lines are far from the iambic foundation, with pyrrhics and amphibrachs - just like the speaker who wants to get away from earth, the rhythm changes - but not too much. The boy still needs to stay grounded:

So was / I once / myself / a swinger / of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when / I'm wea / ry of / consid / erations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your / face burns / and tick / les with / the cobwebs
Broken / across / it, and / one eye / is weeping
From a / twig's hav / ing 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 will / fully mis / understand 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 like /ly to go / better.

Line By Line Analysis

Lines 54 - 59

The remaining lines confirm the speaker's desire. He'd like to climb a birch and experience that sensation again, of going up towards heaven and falling back to the earth.

I'd like / to go / by climb / ing a / birch tree,
And climb / black bran / ches 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 go / ing and com / ing back.
One could / do worse / than be / a swinger / of birches.

There are some ambiguities along the way. For example, how to pronounce Toward - is it a single syllable or two? If it is pronounced T'ward then the line becomes pure iambic pentameter; if Toward then the remaining feet become trochees, which wouldn't work. So the former, T'ward, fits best.

All in all, complex rhythms show up in a traditional iambic framework, reflecting the unusual perspective Frost had on the everyday things he encountered. There is music and texture, repetition but not monotony, and the clever use of alliteration and internal rhyme make this a poem for speaking out loud. But not too loud.

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