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