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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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