Robert Frost's famous poem, "Birches," might be described as a poem of redemptive realism, a poem that offers a loving, yet tinged-by-the-tragic view of life as seen through the metaphors of nature. In fact, Robert Frost could be called a kind of subversive pastoralist, for unlike the romantic nature poets who preceded him, such as Wordsworth, he sees nature's wildness, her beauty, and yet her relentless harshness as well. The poem, "Birches" is a perfect depiction of the balance we try to achieve between our own will and the will of nature; between joy and sorrow; between heaven and earth; between loving this life and weeping over it. "The desire to withdraw from the world and love of the earth is symbolized in the boy's game of swinging birch trees." (Lynen).
The poem is often thought to be divided into three main sections. The first is a very detailed, realistic description of birches in winter, which reveals to us the cruel beauty and power of nature. The second is part fantasy and part boyhood remembrance, where Frost describes what it's like to swing birches in the summer. The third is a look at the meaning of swinging birches, of life itself, from the perspective of an experienced, saddened, but still vital adult.
The poem begins with the narrator watching birches bending to left and right, across "the line of straighter darker trees" and imagining a boy has been swinging them. But these birches are bent to the ground. Boys don't do that, ice storms do. In extraordinary, evocative language, Frost depicts the breathtaking, sumptuous beauty and cruelty of nature. It is reminiscent of the cold, lethal beauty of the Snow Queen in Hans Christian Anderson:
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
This passage is remarkable not only for the image of birch trees utterly transformed and bent to the will of nature, but strangely beautiful in their destruction. As much of the power of the lyricism here comes from images as well as sounds. Who would think of the sun's warmth creating an avalanche, of a sunny winter morning leading to a shattering? In addition, all the "c" sounds (click, crack, colored, craze) give the literal sensation of ice cracking and breaking. One can hear the swoosh of snow as the ice falls, in many "s" sounds: (soon, sun's, shed, crystal, shells, shattering, snow-crust). This blend of "c" and "s" brings us right into the brilliance of that winter morning, that mixture of warmth and icy cold, and the avalanche of crystal upon snow. It is, ultimately, an image of awe and destruction:
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
This is nature's power: to bring down the inner dome of heaven. And the trees, once bowed "so low for long...never right themselves." Frost's unflinching bravery, his willingness to recognize nature's power to bring us life and destroy us as well, is a theme throughout this and many of his poems. "Man can never find a home in nature, nor can he live outside of it." (Lyden). But he can assert the reality of the spirit, of human endeavor and joy, and of nature in her kinder moments.
Just as the chords of a symphony build to a climax, so do the images that pile up on each other in Frost's poem. "Mr. Frost's cunning impressionism produces a subtle cumulative effect, and y his use of pauses, digressions, and the crafty envisagement of his subject at fresh angles, he secures a pervading feeling of the mass and movement and elusive force of nature. He is a master of his exacting medium, blank verse, -- a new master. (Garnett).
That brings us to the middle section of the poem. This section is a kind of idyll, where a boy bends treeas as he is "fetching the cows" for his father. Too far from town and civilization, he invents his own game, and rather than being defeated by life or nature, he takes joy in it as he learns, through bending birches, how to master his world:
One by one he subdued his father's trees
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
This simple and beautiful passage describes a boy learning to be a man, learning how to keep his poise, how to bend trees without breaking them as ice storms do. One can see him swinging and bending birches, child's play turning into life lessons. In fact, this boy seems to be climbing heavenward, in a cup filled "above the brim." His is a life of joy. He may be climbing to that dome of heaven that nature's ice storm shattered, but he always comes down safely through the air to the ground:
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
The use of the word "swish" is interesting and probably deliberate, as it echoes the "s" sounds of the snow. We can feel him "flung...feet first"...and then, through the internal rhyme in the second sentence (down/ground) coming down. This boy's "swish" is gentle, not the devastasting swish of snow and ice.
In the third section, we see the narrator as adult, having contemplated nature and boyhood, and commenting on life itself. This narrator realizes that life itself is a process of swinging birches, of being lifted to heaven, and then kicking down to ground and earth again. To live life fully and well, one must learn how to bend birches (life circumstances) without breaking them or being broken. In order to do that, one must first realize that nature can break and be broken -- one must understand life's cruelty and even weep over it. This narrator sometimes find life difficult -- and he weeps, but with one eye only. If it were both eyes, he might be broken, bent "never to return."
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.
Not surprisingly, we are still in the woods, among the branches. And not surprisingly, Frost uses the word "broken," and the image of a "twig's" lash. This brings to mind a broken birch, or a birch snapping back in rebellion against the "swinger of birches" -- the human being. However, as stated, this narrator weeps with one eye only.
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:
don't know where it's likely to go better.
Earth's the right place for love. Earth, with its ice storms and summer days, its pathless woods and warm winter suns, is the right place for love. And now Frost brings together all the images, their raw native power and their subtle, deep meanings, as he offers us the gem of wisdom:
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.
This is true poetic realism, that offers us deep insight into the spiritual nature of man and life.…