There are few trees so beautiful in the snow of winter as the birch, with its paper-white bark highlighted with slashes of black. The American poet Robert Frost wrote a very well-known poem about birches in winter. Reading it is like listening to the musings of a New England farmer, but of course Robert Frost is only “rural” on the surface. He was really a very sophisticated writer, and it is this combination of the apparent simplicity and rusticity of a farmer combined with an obviously deep mind that gives us the particular pleasure we find in reading Frost’s poetry.
As usual, I will divide the poem into segments for convenience:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the line of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
The poet, out in the woods in winter, has observed the slender birch trees bending this way and bending that, unlike the straight, upright stance of other trees around them, trees with bark that seems, in winter, much darker than the white, leafless birches. He tells the reader, as though just speaking conversationally, that when he sees the birches leaning over instead of standing straight, he likes to pretend to himself that some country boy has been swinging them. Why? Because, of course, it is a pleasant thought that reminds him of his own childhood, and also sets him to musing about other things.
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-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Our poet, though he likes to imagine and pretend, is nonetheless also a realist; he knows that the birches do not really lean because a boy has been swinging them. The true reason is that the birches are bent down in winter ice storms. An ice storm is a rain that falls into a colder layer of air and freezes on whatever it touches, which in a forested area is trees. They become coated with a heavy, silver-white layer of shining ice, which is why when I was a boy, people used to call such an ice storm a “silver thaw.” It is very beautiful, but can also be damaging because the weight of the accumulating ice can break branches. Nonetheless, a good ice storm is a very lovely sight, particularly when the sky clears and the sun shines upon a glittering world.
If there is a wind, it moves the branches, causing their ice coating to click as they tap one another, and the sunlit ice takes on various tints and colors as the “stir,” that is, the movement of the ice-coated branches, cracks and crazes the ice. “Crazes” here means that it creates a network of fine line cracks all over the icy surface. Frost calls the ice coating “enamel,” likening it to the melted glass laid over metal and other bases in the making of jewelry and other objects, a craft called enamelling.
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.
As the sun warms the ice-coated branches, It gradually begins to melt the area where ice and branch meet, and so the ice begins to fall from the branches like “crystal shells,” as the outer ice casing loosens and breaks away. The loosened ice fragments fall and shatter and slide about on the frozen, hard crust of the snow that covers the ground beneath and around the trees. Frost likens the heaps of ice casings fallen from the branches to “heaps of broken glass” to be swept away, but of course that is another poetic fancy. He says there is so much of this ice “broken glass” on the snow that one would think the “inner dome of heaven” had fallen.
This notion of heaven (the sky) as a transparent dome is very ancient. It is the view of the world found in the Old Testament, where if one looked up into the sky, one could see through the transparent, round dome that covered the earth into the blue “waters above the firmament,” a kind of sea of waters held up by the transparent dome, the supposed reason why the sky is blue. Of course Frost did not believe such a “glass” dome really existed, he just considered it a pleasant fanciful notion, like his pretending that a boy had been swinging the leaning birches.
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:
Have you noticed how Frost keeps alternating from poetic imagination to factual reality? First he talks of birches bent down by a boy swinging them, then he says that is not the real reason why birches bend; then he goes into another fantasy about the transparent, glassy dome of heaven having fallen, and the shining debris needing to be swept away, and now he is back to talking again about why ice storms make birches lean. The heavy load of ice encasing them in an ice storm bends the birches down to “the withered bracken,” that is, the dry and withered ferns. And, he says, the birches do not seem to actually break, but nonetheless, once they have been bent over for quite some time in an ice storm that lasts a long while, they never are again able to “right themselves,” that is, they are never able to stand up straight once more, but continue to grow in a leaning position.
And now Frost alternates from reality back to poetic fantasy again:
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.
Years after the ice storm that has weighed the birch trees down, bending them over toward the ground, one may still see, in spring and summer and autumn, the trunks of the birches bent over in the woods, trailing their leaves on the ground. And here the poetic fantasy is that the birch trees are like country girls with long hair, who after they have washed it, get down on their hands and knees and throw their long hair over their heads to spread it out and dry it in the warm sunlight. Comparing the leaning birches trailing their leaves to girls on hands and knees drying their hair spread out upon the ground is of course a simile, as we can easily see from the use of the word “like.” When we say one thing is “like” another, we are using simile (pronounced SIM-il-lee). When we say one thing IS another, we are using metaphor. Frost used metaphor earlier in the poem, when he said the fallen ice was “heaps of broken glass to sweep away.”
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
Frost tells us plainly that he knows he is alternating between truth and poetic fancy, and now that he has taken care of the “truth” about ice storms causing birches to lean, he says to the reader, “Well, now that that obligation to truth has been fulfilled, am I now free to just be poetic? Of course we really know that he has been going back and forth between “truth” and poetic fancy all along. But now he launches into a more detailed description of his poetic fancy that leaning birches are so because a boy has been swinging them:
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.
I grew up in the country, so I know well how the play of country boys is often what they can find for themselves, whether in summer or in winter. And Frost likes to think that this swinging of birches was a form of self-entertainment found by some isolated country boy for amusement to break the monotony of his daily chore of taking the cows out to pasture or bringing the cows back home.
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…
Frost’s imaginary boy, playing by himself, liked to pretend the birches were opponents in battle that he could attack and “subdue,” that is, overcome and conquer by bending them down with his own weight. He would climb them until the slim trunks bent under his weight, and ride them down to the ground, over and over again, until all the tree-firm stiffness was “beaten” out of them, and not a single one stood straight and tall, not a single one was left unconquered. That is Frost’s fantasy, based on what country boys really do.
And now Frost discusses swinging technique:
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.
The country boy knew that he could not swing his feet out too soon, because if he was holding too low onto the tree trunk, his weight would not bend it down to the ground. So he had to carefully and patiently climb to the more slender part of the tree, the top branches, climbing carefully so as not to bend it too soon, climbing with the same care one would use to fill a cup up with liquid to the maximum it could hold.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
Having reached just the right height on the birch tree, the boy, still holding onto the top of it, would fling his feet outward, the momentum of it helping to suddenly bend the tree so low that the boy’s feet would touch the ground.
Now, having discussed all of this, both reality and fantasy and even the technique of swinging birches, Frost begins his poetic and philosophical point:
So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.
The poet says that he (as a boy), was just such a swinger of birches (reality), and so he dreams of going back to being a swinger of birches again (fantasy), though the second time metaphorically. And here is how he sees himself as a future swinger of birches:
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.
When one is weary of daily life as an adult, and all the thought and bother it requires, when life becomes difficult and confusing, like a forest in which there is no path to follow, and when life’s pains and trials get to be too irritating, like walking through cobwebs that stick to and itch on one’s face, and “one eye is weeping” from a twig having struck it (symbolizing the sorrows and sadness of life at times), then Frost tells us what he would like to do to get away from it all for a time:
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
The poet wants to get away from all the trials and troubles and sorrows of life for a while, but only for a while. Then he wants to come back refreshed and renewed, to start over again.
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.
Frost does not want the forces that control the world and life to intentionally misunderstand what he wants; he is no defeatist. He does not want to leave the world by some drastic method, such as committing suicide or dying and leaving the earth permanently. No, he loves the world too much for that. He just needs a break. Earth, he says, is the right place for love. By “love,” he is speaking of the love of the ordinary things of the world, of forests and paths and trees and cows and farms and simple life and simple relationships. And for those, he tells us, earth is the right place; he does not know of any afterlife where such things might be better. So he does not want to abandon life permanently. He just needs to get away from it for a while, to regain his perspective and strength.
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, of course, is just the poet’s fantasy. He says that he would like to “go,” that is, to depart this life (whether temporarily or in death) and leave the world, by climbing up a tall birch tree, just as he did when he was a boy. He would leave earth in that way, climbing carefully higher and higher, farther away from life and the world, until finally he had gone as far as the tree would bear him, and then it would bend its top and set him down back in life and the world again, and that, the poet says, “would be good both going and coming back.” Why? Because leaving would be a pleasure, and returning refreshed and renewed would be a pleasure too.
And that, the poet tells us, is why being a swinger of birches, though simple, is such a pleasant thing. One could do much worse in life than be willing to leave things occasionally for a refreshing break of sorts, then coming back to them again and seeing them anew, beginning one’s life anew.
In my view, that is a good way to live. When one becomes too attached to things, too troubled by the difficulties of daily life, it is good to get away for a time, to climb away from them for some moments or hours or days or months of simple pleasure and renewal, and then one can come back again and see things anew, start life a different way. Life, that way, can be a constant process of rebirth (whether literal or metaphorical) into a better life. But the trick in this is coming back to life with a different perspective than that which caused one to leave it. And that requires one to examine one’s life, the direction in which one is going, one’s goals and objectives. And if we find we are on the wrong path, then when we come back from our swinging of birches, we must chart a new course, change our lives for the better, we must start over again, as though for the first time.