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Frost’s Early Poems

Robert Frost

“Birches”

“The Road Not Taken”

“Fire and Ice”

Complete Text

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
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
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
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.

Summary

When the speaker sees bent birch trees, he likes to think that they are bent because boys have been “swinging” them. He knows that they are, in fact, bent by ice storms. Yet he prefers his vision of a boy climbing a tree carefully and then swinging at the tree’s crest to the ground. He used to do this himself and dreams of going back to those days. He likens birch swinging to getting “away from the earth awhile” and then coming back.

Form

This is blank verse, with numerous variations on the prevailing iambic foot.

Commentary

The title is “Birches,” but the subject is birch “swinging.” And the theme of poem seems to be, more generally and more deeply, this motion of swinging. The force behind it comes from contrary pulls—truth and imagination, earth and heaven, concrete and spirit, control and abandon, flight and return. We have the earth below, we have the world of the treetops and above, and we have the motion between these two poles.

The whole upward thrust of the poem is toward imagination, escape, and transcendence—and away from heavy Truth with a capital T. The downward pull is back to earth. Likely everyone understands the desire “to get away from the earth awhile.” The attraction of climbing trees is likewise universal. Who would not like to climb above the fray, to leave below the difficulties or drudgery of the everyday, particularly when one is “weary of considerations, / And life is too much like a pathless wood.” One way to navigate a pathless wood is to climb a tree. But this act of climbing is not necessarily so pragmatically motivated: For the boy, it is a form of play; for the man, it is a transcendent escape. In either case, climbing birches seems synonymous with imagination and the imaginative act, a push toward the ethereal, and even the contemplation of death.

But the speaker does not leave it at that. He does not want his wish half- fulfilled—does not want to be left, so to speak, out on a limb. If climbing trees is a sort of push toward transcendence, then complete transcendence means never to come back down. But this speaker is not someone who puts much stock in the promise of an afterlife. He rejects the self-delusional extreme of imagination, and he reinforces his ties to the earth. He says, “Earth’s the right place for love,” however imperfect, though his “face burns” and “one eye is weeping.” He must escape to keep his sanity; yet he must return to keep going. He wants to push “[t]oward heaven” to the limits of earthly possibility, but to go too far is to be lost. The upward motion requires a complement, a swing in the other direction to maintain a livable balance.

And that is why the birch tree is the perfect vehicle. As a tree, it is rooted in the ground; in climbing it, one has not completely severed ties to the earth. Moreover, as the final leap back down takes skill, experience, and courage, it is not a mere retreat but a new trajectory. Thus, one’s path up and down the birch is one that is “good both going and coming back.” The “Truth” of the ice storm does not interfere for long; for the poet looks at bent trees and imagines another truth: nothing less than a recipe for how to live well.

A poem as richly textured as “Birches” yields no shortage of interpretations. The poem is whole and lovely at the literal level, but it invites the reader to look below the surface and build his or her own understanding. The important thing for the interpreter is to attune her reading to the elements of the poem that may suggest other meanings. One such crucial element is the aforementioned swinging motion between opposites. Notice the contrast between Truth and what the speaker prefers to imagine happened to the birch trees. But also note that Truth, as the speaker relates it, is highly figurative and imaginative: Ice storms are described in terms of the “inner dome of heaven,” and bent trees as girls drying their hair in the sun. This sort of truth calls into question whether the speaker believes there is, in fact, a capital-T Truth.

The language of the poem—the vocabulary and rhythms—is very conversational and, in parts, gently humorous: “But I was going to say when Truth broke in / With all her matter of fact about the ice storm.” But the folksiness does not come at the cost of accuracy or power; the description of the post-ice storm birch trees is vivid and evocative. Nor is this poem isolated, with its demotic vocabulary, from the pillars of poetic tradition. The “pathless wood” in line 44 enters into a dialogue with the whole body of Frost’s work—a dialogue that goes back to the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno . And compare line 13 with these well-known lines from Shelley’s elegy for Keats, “Adonais”: “Life, like a dome of many colour’d glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity, / Until death tramples it to fragments.” In “Birches,” the pieces of heaven shattered and sprinkled on the ground present another comparison between the imaginative and the concrete, a description of Truth that undermines itself by invoking an overthrown, now poetic scheme of celestial construction (heavenly spheres). Shelley’s stanza continues: “Die, / If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek.” Frost’s speaker wants to climb toward heaven but then dip back down to earth—not to reach what he seeks but to seek and then swing back into the orbit of the world.

Frost also imbues the poem with distinct sexual imagery. The idea of tree-climbing, on its own, has sexual overtones. The following lines are more overt:

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.

As are these more sensual:

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.

The whole process of birch swinging iterates that of sex, and at least one critic has noted that “Birches” is a poem about erotic fantasy, about a lonely, isolated boy who yearns to conquer these trees sexually. It is a testament to the richness of the poem that it fully supports readings as divergent as those mentioned here—and many more.

Two more items to consider: First, reread the poem and think about the possible connections between getting “away from the earth for awhile” (line 48) and death. Consider the viewpoint of the speaker and where he seems to be at in his life. Secondly, when the speaker proclaims, in line 52, “Earth’s the right place for love,” this is the first mention of love in the poem. Of what kind of love does he speak? There are many kinds of love, just as there are many potential objects of love. Try relating this love to the rest of the poem.

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my interpretation

by mistyplayitplease, September 11, 2012

He is dying--right here right now falling down dead and is wondering if it will be a bad thing like the ice falling and breaking or the apples falling and going to the cider heap. He spent a lifetime picking apples and now is his natural moment of death. This is my interpretation of the poem and what frost is conveying in this poem.

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20 out of 78 people found this helpful

Re: you statement: "Neither of the roads is less traveled by."

by emma_on, October 25, 2012

Re: you statement: Neither of the roads is less traveled by.

Take a look at the second stanza:

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Meaning the other was not grassy, and more worn. I.e. more travelled by.

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12 out of 52 people found this helpful

My Interpretation

by Rose_1989_, February 15, 2013

I believe Frost is speaking to the unique path we all travel in life. Every day we are faced with decisions. We weigh our options and try to predict what the outcome of a decision might be. Unfortunately we cannot predict the future...We look down one path as far as we can "to where it bends in the undergrowth" or as far as we can predict however there will always be variables preventing us from seeing too far into the future. Frost says he chooses the path least traveled by, but realistically the path we are all on is this very road he spe... Read more

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