Sunday Poetry: Birches, by Robert Frost

Birches

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.
Ice-storms do that. 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-coloured
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 wilfully 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.

- By Robert Frost
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Last week, I wrote about Robert Frost’s The Gift Outright because of its resonance in the week of Barack Obama’s election. This week I’ll write about one of my favorite Robert Frost poems, Birches.

Robert Frost is a master of meter, and his poetry deserves to be heard. If you like poetry at all, go here and listen to Robert Frost read his own poems – heck, even if you don’t like poetry, give it a try. You get to hear the poet himself sound the words and stress the syllables and make the rhythms. The first time I heard it, the poem changed completely in my head. It became more human and more quirky – who would have thought that the accent is on the second syllable of “baseball”?

More than any other poem I can think of, this poem dares and mocks my attempts to understand and interpret it. There is so much in it that can be analyzed by high school students and undergrads – the Oedipal image of

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.

– the battle between suicidal nihilism and emotional hedonism in

And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully 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

, and even tension between the artistic impulse and reality contained in

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

.
Frost even tosses in a J. Alfred Prufrock reference to tea, and ties his poem and its weariness to T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece.

And one can imagine Frost reacting to all these earnest readings of his poem with another line from Prufrock – “That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all.” Because, like all great poems, it is not a tricky code or a sneaky way of writing about something else. It is what it is – it IS a poem about Birches, at the same time it DOES reflect sexual yearning and nihilism and pain and pleasure and a near-infinity of other meanings. All those readings are there, but in the sense that you can taste vanilla in a great red wine. The wine is not about vanilla, and to try to understand the wine by focusing on the vanilla notes is to be distracted from the greatness of the wine. Of course the wine has vanilla notes in it, just as Birches has sexual yearning in it, but the poem achieves magnificence by containing the sexual yearning and blending it with all that it is until it is no longer a blend of allusions and images – it becomes itself. It IS Birches, and that is the thing that hits you in the heart when you read or (preferably) hear a great poem, while the brain can struggle with the rest of it.

Imagine if Frost had been merely an essayist, or, God-forbid, a blogger. He could write about all the things contained in his poem, and he could convey all the information and thoughts that moved him to write the poem. He could write about the Oedipal complex and about how turned on he was the time he saw some girls bent over drying their hair in the sunshine. He could write about weariness and fear of death.

But Birches is all that and more. Its words are like molecules arranged to form a crystal – they work together to create more than a series of molecules, though they are merely molecules at the same time. The poem is more than the sum of its parts, and that is what makes it great. So, as I try to understand it, I look at the parts and understand them, while the whole exists on another plane, more than I can understand, and mocking me with my own need to try.

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