‘Birches’ is a beautiful, slightly awkward poem about youth, nostalgia, and spirituality, as you will see yourself in the analysis below. Frost explores the flexibility of birches, whilst being equally adaptable with his interpretations of the deeper themes and ideas in the poem.
This breakdown of meaning and analysis is tailored towards CIE/ Cambridge and CCEA A Level syllabuses, but it’s also suitable for anyone studying the poem at any level (GCSE to University), or for any exam board (including Edexcel, AQA, WJEC / Eduqas, and OCR).
If you find this poem analysis useful, you can access the full Frost poetry course.
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.Robert Frost
Brackens — a large, coarse fern that can cover large areas (it goes a rusty brown in autumn / winter)
Subdued — quiet and rather reflective or perhaps depressed — lowered energy
When the speaker sees birch trees bend from side to side in the wind and across to where there are more uniformed trees of a darker shade, he imagines that a boy has been swinging on them. The swinging of the imagined boy does not keep the trees down like ice-storms do and he says that we must have seen the trees loaded with ice after rain, on a sunny winter morning. When the breeze picks up, their branches click together, showing more colours beneath the cracks in the bark that this creates. The warmth of the sun rids the trees of the ice as it falls to the snow-filled ground, shattering and likened to heaps of glass. There is so much of it that one could imagine the dome of heaven had fallen. The trees are pulled down to the worn bracken ferns near the ground, and although they never break, after being bent for so long they never align right again. You might see their trunks arching years after with their leaves trailing the ground, likened to girls on their hands and knees, throwing their hair over their heads to dry in the sun. But the ‘Truth’ about the ice storm broke through the speaker’s thoughts and diverted him from his original intentions, so he switches back to the topic of the boy: the speaker says he would rather have a boy bend the trees down instead, as he went to fetch the cows. Some boy who lived too far from the town to learn baseball, and whose only games were those that he taught himself and could play alone in Summer or Winter. Individually, he brought down each of his father’s trees by climbing them repeatedly until their stiffness wore out. There were no trees left that didn’t hang limply and there were none left to conquer. He would always climb carefully to the top with the same frustration of filling a cup to the brim or slightly above — to the point where the water almost spills out. Then the boy flung his feet out, kicking down to the ground.
We learn at this point that the speaker too was once a swinger of branches and dreamt of going back to it. He dreams of going back to being a young boy swinging birches when he gets weary of life since it is too similar to a pathless wood Where your face is tickled with cobwebs and one eye weeps from the lashings of a twig. The speaker would like to get away from the earth for some time before coming back to life and starting again. He does not want this to be misconstrued by fate to grant him absolute death where he can never return to Earth again. Earth is the best place for love and there isn’t anywhere the speaker thinks is better. He would like to die by climbing a birch tree, climbing black branches of a white trunk towards heaven until the tree couldn’t take the weight and set him back to the ground. It would be good to enjoy the process of climbing away from the earth, then returning to it. There are worse things in life than being a swinger of birches.
As with many of Frost’s poems, the speaker has a playful tone that swings between being spiritual and serious, or irreverent and light-hearted. This oscillation mirrors the movement of the poem, as it switches back and forth between topics to imitate the swinging of the trees.
- The poem is written in a single stanza, giving the ambiance of a dramatic monologue and enhancing the narrative and reflective style of the poem.
- The poem is written in blank verse and mostly conforms to the 10 syllables of unrhymed iambic pentameter, however, there are some frequent deviations to the line lengths that could delineate Frost’s compulsion to push the boundaries of the poem, without breaking the structure completely. This mischievous trait that mirror’s the boy in the poem, is evident from the very beginning with a hypermetric opening line of 11 syllables, and even concluding the poem with a 12 syllable line in a final act of controlled defiance. The whole poem rests on the fluctuating balance between boundaries and the extent to which they can be pushed, a statement that is reflected within the structure of the poem. There is no rhyme scheme, mirroring the irregularity of nature that cannot be confined to structure or repeat.
- The caesura in ‘And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
- So low for long, they never right themselves:’ is a significant feature that draws attention to this particular line and poses as a paradox to the idea that these trees do not break physically, despite the caesura/break, but it suggests that life has worn them down and being beyond repair is much too similar to being broken.
- The poem regularly skips back to the topic of boys swinging birches in a kind of oscillating sense — reflecting the digression of the trees with each return to the subject. The vacillating nature of the ideas of the poem emulates the feel of a stream of consciousness, whilst also suggesting the literal sense of the birches swinging, as a result of the storm, as well as the boy.
- A volta presents itself in the line ‘So was I once myself a swinger of birches.’ as the voice becomes more personal, shifting to the first-person and revealing that the boy is a past version of the speaker, a memory. This also parallels the idea of reincarnation that is strong within the poem: although the boy is ostensibly the childhood version of the speaker, they are separated into two characters, almost as if the carefree boy from his memories is a previous life, one that he dreams about more than remembers.
- Italicisation — ‘Toward heaven’ italicises the motion of the speaker imagining his death by climbing the birch tree up to heaven. This gives a slight leaning or weight to the word, both in the fact it would be emphasised when spoken aloud and how it is visually represented on the page.
Capitonym — the word ‘Truth’ is capitalised, personifying itas a presence that represents the Platonic ideal of ‘Truth’ — a perfect, idealised version of that concept. In the poem, Truth breaks in with her ‘matter of fact about the ice storm’ — the poem starts by exploring an idea but soon becomes more factual, about the way in which ice affects the trees, which leads the speaker to digress from his original philosophical point about the symbolism of birches. It is as if he is annoyed that Truth gets in the way of his fantasy about swinging the birch tree all the way to heaven, similar to the way in which facts and everyday reality get in the way of dreams and big ideas that we may have.
Extended Metaphor — there are recurring motifs of a young boy and heaven, particularly in the latter part of the poem where the speaker imagines being propelled by the tree into heaven, then gently bending back down to the earth, we could say that the birches represent a kind of line of energy between youth and death. Furthermore, the birches themselves are also an extended metaphor for the soul — they are bent and pressurised by natural forces such as the seasons, as well as human forces such as the playfulness of the boy, but the energy and vigour within the trees always causes them to swing back upright, although they may grow permanently twisted from the pressure.
Personification – ‘And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed / So low for long, they never right themselves:’ — there is an impression of stress here, if the birches are put under a lot of stress they ‘seem not to break’ but ‘never right themselves’ — their growth is warped or stunted by the pressure. This can be interpreted as expressing the way in which all natural life will adapt to pressure, but also sometimes be permanently influenced by it. For instance, people who have had to deal with a lot of difficulty in their lives may also ‘never right themselves’ entirely, they may never be able to fully recover and move on from their experiences.
Symbolism — the supple pliancy of the birch tree with its springy centre is used as a symbol for the human soul, which can withstand a lot of pressure and difficulty without breaking, and which may at times be bowed down heavily with a lot of weight (as birches are bowed with snow in winter)
Oxymoron — the birches are ‘loaded with ice on a sunny winter morning’, a visual image that creates a kind of oxymoronic contradiction — we don’t expect ice to occur in sunshine, and we don’t tend to think of Winter as sunny. However, delving deeper we can see that Frost is exploring the inherent contradictions and mercurial qualities in nature, where we do see unusual juxtapositions of weather that create surprising effects.
Reincarnation would be a refreshing experience — the poem concludes with an idea that the speaker would like to climb a birch tree all the way up to heaven, but then instead of entering heaven and staying there for eternity, he’d prefer to let the natural weight of his body at the tip of the tree create a gravitational motion back towards the ground. This concept references the idea of reincarnation — that souls find new bodies to inhabit and come back to life after the death of an individual. We could interpret this as Frost exploring alternative spiritual paths to Christianity, as Christians believe in the finite eternality of an afterlife (either Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory) once a person has died on Earth. Many Eastern philosophies and religions such as Taoism and Buddhism instead propose the concept of reincarnation.
Humans love to push boundaries — The young boy figure in the poem is mischievous and loves the slightly disruptive or defiant act of swinging birches. In the beginning, the speaker says that when he sees birches he likes to think ‘some boy’s been swinging them’, but later he admits that he was ‘once [him]self a swinger of birches’ — we could interpret this as expressing a sense of nostalgia or longing for that carefree time in childhood and adolescence, where people have nothing more to do than to mess around and play in nature. He says further that he dreams of ‘going back’ to this state, which is later explored via the concept of reincarnation.
Suffering and difficulty in life can leave a lasting impression — The sense of nostalgia and longing for youth is bound up with feelings of innocence and a carefree existence. The speaker longs to go back to being a boy living a rural life, ‘whose only play was what he found himself’ — to get back to an imaginative and creative state of being, unburdened by life’s duties and responsibilities. The idea that the birches can only suffer so much weight without it affecting their growth is also transferable to humans and their own response to trauma and difficulty.
Nature is harsh, but also beautiful and spiritual — The snow and ice in the poem are portrayed as harsh and brutal for the birches, which bend under the weight of the snow. But it is also stunningly beautiful and a unique experience to behold:
“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.”
The process of thawing ice here causes the ice to fall and shatter on the snow, it looks like broken glass and makes the speaker feel as if part of heaven had fallen down to earth — we can see that he views the processes of nature as almost spiritual in itself, and that to be immersed in and sensitive to the natural world is akin to a religious experience for him.
Stream of consciousness — the poem feels a little rough around the edges, and it has a meandering, thought skipping quality to it where the speaker digresses off his original point and then comes back around to it. This is a modernist technique which helps to explore the way in which thoughts and memories are imperfect and tend to wander or skip about. Frost called this poem ‘two fragments soldered together’, which may account for this disjointed structure. It feels that one half of the poem is a nostalgic reflection of a boyhood spent in the countryside, whereas the other is a meditation on the transition between life, death, and back again — although the speaker is not clearly moving from one to another, he is combining the two together and switching between them, to enable us to draw some interesting parallels between these two ideas.
Frost believed that poetry ‘plays perilously between truth and make-believe’ — in the poem, he switches between the personal and impersonal, the real and the fictional, the worldly, and the spiritual. In a sense, this also represents the same pliancy of nature as the birches themselves — a way to explore tension and perspective by pushing the boundaries of our perception.
The image of shattered glass is a reference to Shelley’s ‘Adonais’, an elegy on the death of Keats: ‘Life, like a dome of many-colour’d glass,/ Stains the white radiance of Eternity,/Until Death tramples it to fragments.’ — Both Shelley and Keats were Romantic poets, so this aligns Frost’s poem with Romanticism, a movement in literature that explored extremes of emotion and the way in which nature and spirituality are interconnected. In Shelley’s ‘Adonais’, the poet speaks about the tragic loss of Keats’ life, who died very young (aged 26).
- Fiction vs reality
- Pushing boundaries
- Reincarnation — Truth vs Imagination
- Pragmatism vs Idealism
- Ageing / Maturity
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