ISC Class 12 – Literature Birches by Robert Frost -Explanation

Birches by Robert Frost

Robert Frost (1874 –1963) was an American poet having his roots in New England. He loved Nature with great passion. He would walk in the countryside for long hours reveling in the small things he saw along his path – the woods, the streams, the meadows, and the snow-capped landscape in winter. Frost saw what we all see when we roam around, but he noticed many things that we all miss. Frost discovered rare beauty in the ordinary things he saw. However, as he walked, his deeply contemplative mind took him through the many trials and tribulations of the humdrum life we live. It is difficult to ignore the philosophical undertones, the sense of resignation, and the streaks of optimism in Frost’s poems. In ‘Birches’, the poet looks around the snow-covered landscape where the birch trees sway back and forth carrying their burdens of snow. They stoop, rise, bend, and yet they tenaciously survive the onslaught of the harsh winter. ‘Birches’ must be read and re-read as it bristles with life’s many lessons.
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The poem.. Birches are a type of trees seen in the cold northern areas of the Northern Hemisphere. Since Robert Frost lived in New England, and wandered around the area leisurely, he must have come across clusters of Birch trees. Winter brings down loads and loads of snow that weigh down the Birch trees. Wind blows relentlessly swinging the burdened tress back and forth. As Sunlight falls on the foliage, snow melts and drops off the leaves, temporarily bringing respite to the trees.

Meaning of first ten lines …

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 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

The poet surveys the woods. There are so many species of trees. His eyes fall on the bent-down birch trees.  In contrast, the other kinds of trees in the background stand erect. The poet wonders if this is the handiwork of some boys who have playfully tried to bend the trees. Soon he reasons that it can not be so, because the tree would spring back to stand erect again. ‘Obviously, the birches have bent down due to the snow storms,’ he concludes.

The weight of the falling ice has bent the birches down and frozen the leaves and branches making them motionless. When sunlight falls on the trees in a winter morning, the ice begins to thaw. The melting ice sparkles emitting reflection of different hues. It is a fascinating sight.

Meaning of lines 10 to 20…

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

The half-molten ice crystals fall off the branches and collect on the ground. It seems like someone has swept broken glass pieces and gathered them in a heap. The pile of snowflakes get carried to the nearby fern bushes.

The birch trees, after remaining bent for long without breaking, can’t regain their erect posture after the ice load is gone. They assume a somewhat hunched posture. For long years they remain bent when their leaves from the upper branches grovel on the ground. Frost likens this sight to the way girls kneel forward on their hands to let their hair hang to dry. Such Birches stooped by the weight of ice storms can be seen all over the woods.

Meaning of the lines 20 to 40 …

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, 25
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, 30
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 35
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. 40

The poet is possibly lost in a momentary reverie. He thinks it would have been much more enjoyable to see a cowherd boy bending the birch trees for sheer fun. Even he imagines a rich man’s son from town coming to play baseball in the area. The lad could expend his energy in bending down all the birch trees in the forest. He could do it with no fear as the woods belong to his father. The boy would have immensely enjoyed overpowering the trees one by one, until he was done with all the trees in the forest. In his enthusiasm, the boy labouriously climbs to the upper reaches of a tree only to slip and slump on to the ground. However, the boy takes the mishap in his stride and bears the pain stoically. The poet’s imagination is in full view here.

Meaning of the lines 40 to the end ..

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 45
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 not fate willfully misunderstand me 50
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 55
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.

 

Frost reminisces about his young childhood days when he used to play with the birch trees. He becomes nostalgic thinking of those carefree days when life was so easy-paced and joyful. Now, he has grown up. Life’s cares constantly gnaw at him robbing him of innocence and happiness. The burden of adult life has weighed him down. He imagines, he is wading through a thicket of birch trees, when a twig rubs against his eye.

He yearns for his childhood days. He wants to bid adieu to this crooked unkind world, and be reborn as a child, so that he can enjoy life with gay abandon in the lap of the woods, the birch trees, and the countryside.

If this is not possible, he wants his wishes to be fulfilled at least by half. ‘This love-less, stressful world is not his place of living,’ he bemoans. He wants to be a child again, and climb the birch tree till its top where the branches can’t support his weight, and he slumps back on the ground with a thud. He could repeat this climb-and-fall ritual over and over again enjoying every moment of it. With a sense of resignation, Frost feels that nothing on earth can be better than this innocent fun.

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Question … What are the abstract and philosophical elements of the poem?

Answer .. Robert Frost was a westerner, but he had an innate tendency to look within, like most intellectuals in the East do. As he sauntered through the countryside in winter, he feasted his eyes in the birch trees virtually cowered down by the load of snow sitting on their branches and leaves. Robert Frost being a sensitive soul discovered new wisdom from this. He was at odds with the daily humdrum life that made people greedy, and selfish. He loathed such a dreary existence, but he refused to be a pessimist.

The birches did crouch under snow, but the Sunlight dislodged the snow off the leaves. The birch tree stood up again, to its full height jubilantly. It defied the woes of the winter, and declared its triumph over the curse of the cold. Warmth returned to its life. This makes Frost optimistic, and cheerful. He feels, he can wait out the hard days of life.

However, deep in his heart, Robert Frost loved the innocence and simplicity of childhood, but he couldn’t. The poem shows the rare spiritual and philosophical streak in Frost’s mind. Few humans are capable of such contemplation.

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24 thoughts on “ISC Class 12 – Literature Birches by Robert Frost -Explanation”

  1. Wrirte a comparitive description about the characters Caliban and Ariel in the play ‘The Tempest’? [Detailed Descripton]

    Reply
    • Samiran, I haven’t taken up The Tempest yet. So, it will take time, say about 7 to 10 days. Also, don’t forget to give me the word limit.

      Reply
    • Theme of the poem ‘Birches’
      Robert Frost was a loner and a thinker. He was a lover of Nature too. All the common sights that we all see around us and ignore were, for Frost, Nature’s canvass that had intriguing patterns etched on them. For commoners, these don’t evoke any feelings, but for Frost they had profoundly impactful messages to convey for those who had the sensitivity and intelligence to decipher them. Frost was generally not happy with the order of things he saw around him. He was powerless and clueless about the ways in which he could reconcile with the life on earth that he generally perceived to be oppressive. In the stooped branches of the Birch tree, he saw the inescapable tyranny of life. Snow came down on the branches and sat on them for months, before sunlight brought the much-awaited deliverance from the oppressive load of snow. The wind blew to dislodge the flakes, but the respite was not enough. When the sunlight finally shook off the snow, the branches were twisted out of shape.
      Frost saw the life’s travails as the snow on the birch tree’s branches. A human born in the world is condemned to suffer the debilitating effects of life’s cares and anxieties. The solace comes periodically when the person enjoys some carefree and joyful days, but the sorrows return again, just the way snow comes down on the branches in the next winter. The burden of life distorts a person’s nature and body. The birch’s branches suffer the same way as they get permanently deformed after carrying the snow’s load for months.
      Robert Frost concludes the pain and misery of life are inescapable, so he wants to travel back in time to his childhood days. The innocence and joyfulness of those days make him emotional. He reminisces about those times, although he knows the longing is futile. In short, Birches is a poem that mirrors life’s tragedy, and torrid experiences. It is a mournful craving for carefree life, and the sweetness of innocence.

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    • Answer…
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      Robert Frost observed Nature as avidly as William Wordsworth did, but the impact on the two great Nature lovers was so much different. In ‘Birches’, Frost fests his eyes on the dull and gloomy tree weighed down by winter’s snow fall. It baffles the reader how such an ordinary depressing scene could trigger such a torrent of emotions in the poet’s mind. Undoubtedly, Frost had a tender and compassionate mind. He loved the innocence of children. Between the lines 20 and 40, he imagines a boy turning and twisting the branches of the Birch tree. The hapless tree bears the playfulness of the boy with no complaint. The exuberant boy climbs to the top, but comes crashing down on to the ground. The boy bears the pain with no grudge or anger. The poet enjoys these thoughts. His imagination runs wild.
      From line 40 onwards, his hopelessness overtakes him. Vainly, he remembers his innocent fun-filled childhood days. Suddenly, the adult life and the complexities and brashness of the world push him in a downward spiral towards an abyss filled with doom and despair. Such swing of emotion is unusual. It can come only to those who, occasionally, feel this life on earth is insufferable, and crooked.
      Robert Frost lapses into escapism when he is unable to come to terms with the life that he feels is saddled with sorrows. He cherishes the good old days of childhood knowing well that one can not travel back in time. Yet, he allows himself to be lost in this fantasy that could never become a reality. What a tragedy for so brilliant a poet to feel defeated by mundane life’s pains and disappointments!
      Frost was naïve to hope to go back to his childhood days. He perhaps knew it was an absurd idea to hope for something that would never return. Yet, he reveled at the momentary happiness of being a child again. Was he an escapist? The answer is ‘Yes’ albeit for a brief period.

      Reply
    • Answer …
      Robert Frost was a loner and a man of few words. He loved looking inwards, into his soul when he got some time to reflect. He was an avid watcher of Nature too. It is strange how all the common sights that we all see around us and ignore, ignited his thinking mind’s creativity. He discovered Nature’s intriguing forms, and could relate them to his real life’s imponderable questions. He didn’t loathe the realities of man’s mundane existence. Instead, he found pleasure in contrasting the trials of his daily life with the lofty nature of the many natural sights he came across. This journey into the heart of Nature and juxtaposing the feelings on the rough edges of humdrum daily existence in the world makes ‘Birches’ such a captivating poem to read.
      Frost was generally not happy with the order of things he saw around him. His personalia bear ample testimony to his inner rumblings. He found it hard to reconcile with the life on earth that he generally perceived to be oppressive. In the stooped branches of the Birch tree, he saw the inescapable tyranny of life. Snow came down on the branches and sat on them for months, before sunlight brought the much-awaited deliverance from the oppressive load of snow. The wind blew to dislodge the flakes, but the respite was not enough. When the sunlight finally shook off the snow, the branches were twisted out of shape.
      Frost saw the life’s travails as the snow on the birch tree’s branches. A human born in the world is condemned to suffer the debilitating effects of life’s cares and anxieties. The solace comes periodically when the person enjoys some carefree and joyful days, but the sorrows return again, just the way snow comes down on the branches in the next winter. The burden of life distorts a person’s nature and body. The birch’s branches suffer the same way as they get permanently deformed after carrying the snow’s load for months.
      Robert Frost concludes that the trials and tribulations of life can’t be wished away. For respite from the misery of life, he wants to travel back in time to his childhood days. He knows those days are gone forever, and longing for them is futile, but he loves to be lost in his reverie. In short, Birches is a poem that mirrors life’s tragedy, and torrid experiences. It is a mournful craving of an innocent man who wants reprieve from the stifling realty, but has no escape route. The poem swings between the joyful images he sees as real, and the vain desires to go back in the time scale to savour the sweetness of childhood innocence.
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  2. Q1. “Beauty blended with wisdom” is all about ‘Birches’. Elucidate. {200-250 words}
    Q2. Frost said “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom” How far does this reflect in the poem ‘Birches’? {250-300 words}
    Q3. How are the birches described in the poem? What do they signify? {200-250 words}
    Q4. How are the techniques of flashback used in the poem? {200-250 words}

    Can you please answer these questions by Saturday, 13th June?

    Reply
  3. Discuss ‘Birches’ as a poem that moves from naturalistic description to a fanciful explanation of why the birches are bend and concludes with philosophical exploration of a person’s existence in the world.

    (250 words)

    Reply
    • Robert Frost’s love for Nature suffuses through the poem with remarkable sensitivity and candor. Like an innocent child seeing a snow-laden Birch tree, he gapes at the stopping branches with delight. Soon, the philosopher in him winks, and he becomes thoughtful. He feels pity for the birch tree because it has to carry so much of load for no fault of it. At the same time, he doesn’t fail to notice that the snow would soon melt, and the drooping branches would resurrect themselves. His mind oscillates between gloom and hope, between feelings of resignation and resurgence. In between, the child in Robert Frost takes him to the pleasures of his childhood days when he roamed in gay abandon, oblivious of the cares and angst of life. When he grew up, life’s complexities besmirched his mind leaving him bewildered and pensive.
      ‘Birches’ is a poem that starts with a very simplistic observation of Nature around us, but gradually navigates the reader into the metaphysical world where everything is so intriguing. His expectations of life are quixotic, and Frost knows it, but he can’t rein in his childlike simplicity. This is the aspect of the poem that makes it a timeless wonder.

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