Birches is a poem by American poet Robert Frost. It was collected in Frost's third collection of poetry Mountain Interval that was published in 1916. Consisting of 59 lines, it is one of Robert Frost's most anthologized poems. The poem "Birches", along with other poems that deal with rural landscape and wildlife, shows Frost as a nature poet.
Frost's writing of this poem was inspired by another similar poem "Swinging on a Birch-tree" by American poet Lucy Larcom and his own experience of swinging birch trees at his childhood. Frost once told "it was almost sacrilegious climbing a birch tree till it bent, till it gave and swooped to the ground, but that's what boys did in those days". Written in 1913-1914, "Birches" first appeared in Atlantic Monthly in the August issue of 1915, and was later collected in Frost's third book Mountain Interval (1916).
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
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
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
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.
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,
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,
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
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.
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
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 no fate willfully misunderstand me
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
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 (the poet himself) sees the birches being bent to left and right sides in contrast to straight trees, he likes to think that some boys have been swinging them. He then realizes that it is not the boys, rather the ice storms that bend the birches. In winter morning, birches become covered with snow which displays multiple colors in sunlight. The growing sunlight causes the snow to fall on the ground.
When the Truth again strikes the speaker, he still prefers his imagination of the boys swinging and bending the birches. In his imagination, the boy plays with the birches. The speaker says he also was a swinger of birches when he was a boy, and wishes to be so now. When he becomes weary of this world, and life becomes confused, he likes to go toward heaven by climbing a birch tree and then come back again because earth is the right place for love.
Written in conversational language, the poem constantly moves between imagination and fact, from reverie to reflection. In the opening, the speaker employs an explanation for how the birch trees were bent. He is pleased to think that some boys were swinging them when he is suddenly reminded that it is actually the ice-storm that bends the trees. Thus, the poem makes some shift of thought in its description. An abrupt shift occurs when the speaker yearns to leave this earth because of its confusion and make a heaven-ward journey. But the speaker does not want to die by leaving earth forever. He wants to come back to this earth, because to the speaker, the earth is, though not perfect, a better place for going on. The speaker is not one who is ready to wait for the promise of afterlife. The love expressed here is for life. This shows Frost's agnostic side where heaven is a fragile concept to him. This becomes clear when he says the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
Rich metaphoric thinking and imagery abounds the poem where Frost presents some sharp descriptions of natural phenomena.
The poem centers on various themes of balance, youth, spirituality, and natural world. The poem deals with the issue of how to reconcile between impulse and carefulness, between spontaneity and structure. This act of balancing remains a crucial theme in Frost's thought, and frost's typical suggestion to this is to execute things in a way that requires control and skill – be it a question of climbing and swinging a Birch tree or an act of writing or any other issue of real-life. Youth also comes as a theme in this poem as the speaker imagines some boy despite coming across one.
- Lynen, John F (2009). Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Frost. Infobase Publishing. p. 38. ISBN 9781438115832.
- Fagan, Deirdre J. (2007). Critical Companion to Robert Frost: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. Infobase Publishing. p. 42. ISBN 9781438108544. Retrieved 10 November 2013.
- Parini, Jay (1999). Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Halt. p. 22.
- Ingebretsen, Edward J. (2001). Nancy Lewis Tuten, ed. The Robert Frost Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 31. ISBN 9780313294648.
- Deirdre J. Fagan (2007), p. 43
- "Birches Theme of Youth". Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc. Retrieved 15 November 2013.
- "Frost’s Early Poems". SparkNotes LLC. Retrieved 8 November 2013.