A Poetry Lesson: Robert Frost’s ‘Birches’

I love this beautiful poem by Robert Frost. There is a great entry on him at the Poetry Foundation, worth a look if you don’t know much about him.

He was a very canny self-publicist and, unlike many of his contemporaries, achieved huge fame during his lifetime, hobnobbing with presidents  (he wrote and read the inauguration poem for JFK) and is generally considered one of America’s most popular poets.

These two photographs of Frost are very good examples of the persona he liked to present to the world. ‘Old Time Farmer’ and ‘Contemplative Pipe Smoker’, at one with nature, getting his hands dirty – poems like ‘Mending Wall‘, and ‘After Apple Picking‘  seem to reinforce this. But don’t be fooled…

One of his most famous poems, ‘The Road Not Taken‘ is a confidence trick. With it’s familiar lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

it has been accepted by many as praise for being different, going your own way, striking out away from the herd. But if you look at it closely, you’ll see he spends a great deal of time establishing that both paths are EXACTLY THE SAME

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same

and

And both that morning equally lay

 Katherine Kearns famously said about the poem ‘The best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ and Frost himself said, ‘You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky’.

The persona of folksy, apple-picking farmer with a shock of white hair is one he carefully cultivated, but in fact Frost was highly educated, cultured, and fond of leading people down blind alleyways with his poetry. Lionel Trilling called him a ‘terrifying poet’.

Robert Forst as a Young Man

Frost as a young, handsome man.

This is so true. A poem you think is about picking apples, or mending walls, or going for a walk on the hills, very quickly reveals itself to be about death, or the fear of absence, or the terrors of a Godless world. We must never forget that Frost is a Modernist poet. Yes, he writes in a folksy way, usually in blank verse, but when you read and re-read his work you will see the darkness within it.

A particularly good example of this is ‘Desert Places‘ I defy anyone to read that poem without shivering with unease. It makes you want to turn the TV up loud and hide under your duvet.

Frost was highly cultured and educated. He spent some time at Harvard and in 1912 he travelled to England where he formed friendships with great poets such as Edward Thomas, T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound. Not the usual compatriots of a simple farmer.

The main reason I am a little in love with Frost is his approach to metre. Unlike his peers who were experimenting with free verse, Frost chose to use a fairly formal and conventional structure: the iambic pentameter. Many of his poems are written in blank verse.

To learn more about the iambic foot, you can have a look at my post on George Herbert. Basically, iambic pentameter is five beats in a line where every other syllable is stressed. So: tee TUM tee TUM tee TUM tee TUM tee TUM.

It’s a very common metre and you can find this form in literature going back a thousand years.

Frost was always very scathing about the use of free verse. He is quoted as saying,  ‘I had as soon write free verse as to play tennis with the net down.’ Brilliant.

Even better, he wasn’t a slavish follower of the iambic rhythm. He liked the tension created by tugging at the iambic rhythm to create a sense of natural speech. He said:

My versification … is as simple as this, there are very regular pre-established accent and measure of blank verse; and there are the very irregular accent and measure of speaking intonation. I am never more pleased than when I can get these into strained relation.

 Look at this wonderful way he describes playing with the rhythms of a meter…

And gee what’s the good of the rhythm unless it is on something that trips it – that ruffles? You know, it’s got to ruffle the meter.

 ‘Ruffle the meter’ – love it. I love the tactile way he describes the rhythms of poetry – as if it is something he can feel in his hand. (But note his use of ‘gee’ – aw shucks, I’m just a simple hick chattin’ about poetry)

So let’s look at one of my favourite Frost poems. It’s called ‘Birches’ and has a delicate loveliness hiding an interesting complexity which makes me want to read it and read it again.

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.

 

So far, so straightforward. Frost uses the first person; he does this often in his poems and it gives them an intimate, personal feel. The first two lines are neat iambic pentameter. Note how his choice of words ‘line’ and ‘darker’ convey a sense of an upright lines, reflecting the straighter trees. They contrast with the ‘birches bend’ ‘left and right’ which conveys a sense of trees swaying.

The ‘ruffle’ come in the third line. Look closely at it. Yes it’s iambic pentameter, but the linking of ‘boy’s been’ means you can’t help stressing both the words. I think it’s the repetition of the ‘b’ sound and the clash of the ‘o’ and ‘ee’ vowel sounds.

Why does Frost do this? Well, it tips the reader forward into a big stress on ‘SWINGing’ them. The shift in the stress forces that verb to the front conveying a strong sense of upward, joyful, movement. This reflects the young lad playing on the trees, swinging up and back on the bending trees.

This is a lovely interpretation of why the birches bend – because some boy has been bouncing away on them. But the next lines challenge that reading.

 

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.

 

These are some of the most beautiful lines in poetry, I think. The voice of the poem recognises that the birches have been bent permanently, and a boy simply swinging on them would not have had this effect.

Note how the tone changes with the break in the line following ‘as ice storms do’.

The flowing iambs are stopped short with that Caesura and a feeling of unease is created. It feels like a step has been missed as you suddenly have to halt at the full stop. This reflects the devastating effects of the ice storm – not just on the trees, but on the poem itself.

He then involved his reader, ‘you must have seen them,’ he says, his conversational tone engaging us further. Frost flips the tee TUM of the iambs in the next line by using a trochee stressed ‘LOADed’. The stress is clearly on the first syllable conveying a s sense of the groaning weight of snow on the delicate branches of the birch.

Listen to the glorious onomatopoeic quality of the words ‘click’, ‘cracks’ and ‘crazes’ – the present tense adding to the immediate effect.

Frost’s precise eye for detail is revealed in the description of the white of the frost and snow turning ‘many-colored’ as the ‘enamel’ of the frozen snow cracks when the trees move, revealing the colours of the bark beneath. Gorgeous.

 

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.

 

These lines are full of sound. Look at all those ‘S’s! This is called sibilance and it works brilliantly to give the reader the sense of the shushing and slushing of the ice and snow as it melts and crashes to the ground. You even hear the ‘clinking’ of the ice when Frost compares it to broken glass.

Just look at this line again…

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells

You have to say it out loud to really appreciate the beauty of the sounds in this line. Its almost like a tongue twister. I also love the idea of describing the snow encased around the branching falling to the ground like ‘crystal shells’

And the that beautiful, but chilling line, there is so much snow and ice piled up you would think, ‘the inner dome of heaven had fallen’. It’s a beautiful image, but also slightly chilling. Why has heaven 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.

 

Suddenly the tone darkens again after the pretty images of crystals and ice. Words like ‘dragged’ and ‘withered’ introduce echoes of death, of victims being pulled into decaying undergrowth.

The effect of the snow on these birches is permanent. They pull the trees down so far eventually they are bowed forever. Initially these lines are eerie, with the line break before ‘years afterward’ emphasising the long stretch of time these birches will be disfigured and twisted.

But the last image is more positive. The broken and bent birches are compared to careless young girls, tossing their wet hair over their heads, to dry in the sun. A charming image summoning a sense of grace and arched beauty. It seems discordant so close the previous lines where the trees are ‘dragged’ into the ‘withered bracken’.

Frost does this in many of his poems. There is often a sense of tension, ambivalence and ambiguity about his approach. It’s the most Modernist aspect about his work, this tendency to leave things unresolved and uncertain. He will place two contradictory ideas, themes, or images together without comment – leaving the reader to decide what he truly believes or thinks.

In the next lines Frost briskly moves on, dipping a note of cold unease and then talking fast to distract you. Back to his story, he says, before ‘truth’ so rudely interrupted his light-hearted musings.

 

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.

 

The voice makes it very clear he knows the reason the birches bend is because they are weighted down with ice and snow that can permanently disfigure them. But, he ‘prefers’ not to believe it. He wants them to be bent by a joyful young boy’s energetic antics.

The boy is a farm boy -fetching the cows and stuck in the countryside. The only play he has is from the adventures he invents on his own.

These lines have a naturalistic, conversational tone. Look at the humour of ‘but I was going to say when Truth broke in with all her matter of fact about the ice-storm’, like a bloke in a pub rolling his eyes when his wife interrupts his tale telling.

It’s an idyllic pastoral scene, the boy with the cows eyeing up trees he can slide down, but there’s also a definite sense of loneliness and isolation.

 

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.

 

I always find the first lines of this section sexualised. Basically, the boy is climbing the trees then using their flexibility to slide down, bending them to the ground before jumping off.

But look at the language Frost uses! The boy ‘subdued his father’s trees’ by ‘riding them’ ‘over and over again’, taking the ‘stiffness out of them’

Hmmm

Freudian, much?

Maybe just me and my dirty mind? The word ‘conquer’ makes me think of father and son locking horns, with the son eventually overcoming the father, the familiar ‘boy becoming a man’ theme. This fits with the erotic vocabulary of ‘riding’ and ‘stiffness’ and ‘limp’. Is the boy discovering his sexuality as he grows into a man? There is certainly as strong sense of power and domination in the first part of this section.

Frost uses a strikingly effective image when describing the boy making his way up they tree with  absolute caution and care.

 

…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.

 

The image of a cup of water filled so much the water brims over the top, held only with the surface tension, is a great way to give the reader a sense of the boy slowly and meticulously making his way up to the tree.

Glass Brimming

Read the line again. See how Frost slows the pace right down. The long sentence is broken over four lines and the enjambment slows it down still further. I like the alliteration of ‘climbing carefully’, you can almost hear those steady steps upward.

The next section has a huge contrast in feel and movement.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

This is SUCH a fantastic pair of lines. A wonderful sense of joy in the movement with words like ‘FLUNG’ and ‘SWISH’. This starkly contrasts with the painstaking, slow pace of the previous two lines.

The rhythm emphasises this. ‘Then’ is stressed and so is ‘flung’ and ‘out’. This challenges the previously established iambic rhythm. I can’t help reading ‘flung’ and ‘out’ as stressed so it’s a kind of spondee. (A metrical foot when both syllables are stressed). ‘Feet first’ is also a double stress then the wonderful stylish and exuberant ‘with a SWISH’ which could be an anapaestic foot. (Two unstressed syllables followed by a stress).

The repetition of the ‘f’s reinforces the rushing sound of the boy’s movement and I like the ‘sh’ sound of the ‘swish’ which continues that effect. And then this:

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

A wonderful tumble of words. There are 11 syllables here. ‘Kick’ is stressed so the line starts with a trochee. ‘KICKing’. Because of the extra syllable you have to say this line incredibly quickly. The stresses are interesting.

KICKing his way DOWN through the AIR to the GROUND.

A very good example of ‘ruffling’ the meter.  I think (and I may be wrong, this is just my opinion here) that Frost has constructed his line using a trochee followed by three anapaests.

So:

/u uu/ uu/ uu/

(u= unsressed /=stressed)

It’s a stunning example of how structure can convery and reinforce the meaning or sense of the poem.

Read it again:

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

See how fast you have to read it? Can’t you just see that boy plummeting to the ground with a joyful whoop?

Lovely.

Anapaests are interesting – you find them in classical literature and they are often used to convey a sense of victory or accomplishment with its driving, uplifting rhythm. (Plath uses anapaests to good effect in her poem ‘Daddy‘ but although it sounds victorious, it’s not particularly jolly

There’s a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

 

Can you hear them? ‘There’s a STAKE’, ‘And the VILL’ and ‘They are DANC’)

Anyway, back to Frost.

In the next part, Frost brings himself into the poem and writes of how he envies the innocent and carefree joy of the boy, riding on birches.

 

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.

 

Oh My God this is so me at my age. How often do you feel you are in a ‘pathless wood’? How hilarious is the description of the weeping eye which has been lashed with a twig? I love that bit. It’s so familiar; life seems to kick you in the gut sometimes, and, like stubbing your toe, unfair and painful events happen over which you have no control, leaving you limping and squinting with pain and weariness.

It reminds me of my post I wrote about a bad day which coincided with a nasty case of conjunctivitis and I was screaming at the children to get their bags packed, blind in one eye and sight obliterated by ointment in the other.

Frost goes on, dreamily…

 

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 get away’, he says (you and me both, love)  and start again. Then that smiling, folksy raised finger ‘may not fate willfully misunderstand me’. He means, ‘Now, Fate… don’t you go thinking I want to die’. (I like the way he sees Fate as ‘wilful’ here.)

As he says, ‘Earth’s the right place for love’. And Frost can’t think of anywhere else that is ‘likely to go better’. There’s something charming about the folksiness of these lines. They are simple, but heartfelt, which prevents the voice from sounding mawkish.

 

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.

 

How does he want to have his break from Earth and the troubles of life? By ‘climbing a birch tree’, up ‘toward heaven’ not to heaven, notice! Until the tree can’t take his weight any more and brings him safely back down.

The poem closes with a lovely, memorable pair of lines.

 

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

 

I like the ‘that would be good’. He sounds like the boy – that’s the way children speak. No need for ornate elaboration. But the joy of that experience is clearly expressed: ‘That would be good’ indeed.

And that final line – in pretty much perfect iambic pentameter – ‘One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.’

What does he mean here? On the surface it seems obvious – being a kid swinging on birches sounds like a pretty good life. You could do worse, Frost says. But I know Frost can be canny. I can’t help thinking this is a sly reference to poetry itself, and to his technique. Isn’t this what Frost does in his poems? Swings the birches? In the way he tugs and stretches the iambic rhythm?

What do you think? Do you like the poem? I hope you do! Here is is in full. By the way, if I have inspired you to have a look at some of his other poems, this link will take you to a good collection of his work, published by Vintage Classics. (I do get a little commission if you buy it)

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

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.

 

Bent Birches

 

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10 thoughts on “A Poetry Lesson: Robert Frost’s ‘Birches’

      1. thehomeplaceweb

        No….I’m not much of a poetry person, I only wrote about that one as it popped into my head because I have a snowy woods near my house! I started with the poem but my post actually morphed into something about music and rhyming etc. I will check it out however….thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

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