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.
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.
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.