The Poems of Robert Frost | Study Guide

Robert Frost

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The Poems of Robert Frost | Birches | Summary

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Summary

The speaker alternates between telling the "Truth" about how an ice storm ravages birch trees and recalling memories of the time when he was a "swinger of birches." The ice storm that permanently bends the trunks of birch trees into white arches against the forest's "straighter darker trees" creates a natural beauty. For the speaker, there is present in his mind's eye a beauty of another sort as well. The arched birches and their trailing leaves recall the image of girls "on hands and knees" tossing their hair to dry it in the sun.

Then the speaker thinks of a boy who, living far from town, plays alone by climbing the birches and riding them to the ground. The boy has taught himself to ride the tree with care, climbing up to the "top branches," and then kicking off and sailing to the ground. The boy subdues his father's trees, taking the "stiffness out of them, / And not one but hung limp." The speaker adds, "So was I once myself a swinger of birches."

The exhilaration the speaker has experienced in his youth becomes nostalgia. Once a "swinger of birches," the speaker, the grown-up version of the boy, dreams of "going back to be." When life brings pain, even minor scrapes and bruises, he thinks of climbing a birch tree "Toward heaven." Leaving earth and coming back, he reminisces, would be good. He concludes, "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches."

Analysis

"Birches," published in Mountain Interval (1916), is one of the most fun of Frost's poems. In an extended metaphor of the arched birch trunk, the speaker replicates the exuberance of adolescent sexuality and a nostalgic delight in memory.

The poem is quirky from the beginning. When the speaker sees birch trees "bend to left and right / Across the lines of straighter trees," he thinks of boys swinging them. Immediately, though, he catches himself and recalls that these birch trees were bent by ice storms. Then readers are immersed in "a sunny winter morning." Eight lines of the effects of ice on the trees follow. He describes shards of broken glass on the "snow crust," the ice fallen from the trees in heaps as though "the inner dome of heaven had fallen." It is a strange conceit for a beautiful sight and seems to point away from the "Truth" of the ice storm, as the speaker describes it. The birch trunks "arching in the woods" are white against the "darker straighter trees" and recall for the speaker an unexpected image of girls drying their hair in the sun.

Nearly halfway through the poem, the speaker returns to the narrative of the "swinger of birches" that was broached in the opening lines. "I should prefer to have some boy bend them," the speaker says. In this line, "Them" does not refer to those girls on their hands and knees in the woods that immediately precede this line. More likely, it is in reference to the birches, although the pronoun doesn't have an antecedent within many lines in either direction. The exuberance of the boy's ride and the wealth of details regarding the boy's mastery of the ride are managed in a sexually charged diction. He "subdued" his father's trees; took the "stiffness" out of them until "not one but hung limp."

"So was I once myself," he acknowledges, "a swinger of birches. / And so I dream of going back to be." His dream is not to climb the tree without returning, for "Earth's the right place for love." Still, he imagines climbing a "snow-white trunk / Toward heaven" and coming back. The adolescent dream is satisfying. "One could do worse," he concludes, "than be a swinger of birches."

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