Robert Frost’s “Birches”

Thinking back upon a winter’s day in New England, a man in the middle of life beholds the bent limbs of a birch tree that recalls the fondest of childhood memories, the delight of climbing up the tree and sliding down the bent branches again and again. He knows the real reason for the bending of the birches, the ice storms that weigh upon the tree to form crystal shells that then melt and shatter like broken glass. Yet he favors another explanation: “I should prefer to have some boy bend them/ As he went out 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.” He remembers all the fun a boy enjoyed on such winter days when he mastered the art of swinging on birches, a talent that required him to climb up the tree step by step from branch to branch with caution and poise—“With the same pains you use to fill a cup/ Up to the brim, and even above the brim.” He acquired the skill of beginning to slide slowly and “not launching out too soon/ And so not carrying the tree away/ Clear to the ground.” The swinging of birches involves dangers and risks that demand attention and care. To be in rush to climb to the top, to go head first, or to race hastily to the bottom spoil the fun with foolish risks and serious hazards.

This happy recollection of pure fun has faded into the past as the narrator in his adulthood suffers the burdens of the human condition that oppress the spirit. The duties, responsibilities, sorrows, and injustices of life have taken their toll as the joy of childhood has diminished and the weariness of the world has increased. He can no longer climb up and down birch trees with the agility of a boy, and he cannot return to the past; however, he can learn from the past to live in the present. This happy memory from childhood on the art of swinging birches provides a practical wisdom that teaches the art of living. In middle age a man feels the weight of the world depriving him of joy: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations,/ And life is too much like a pathless/ Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs/ Broken across it, and one is weeping/ From a twig’s having lashed across it open.” But he remembers that the swinging of birches is a movement of alternations and natural transitions. The lesson it teaches is the art of going up and coming down, the rhythm of work and play, first the climbing and then the sliding. In the middle of things, in the middle of life, in the middle of a journey the heaviness and monotony of toil weary the soul as the “noon-day demon” of world weariness and ennui stifle lightheartedness and mirth. At such moments a wise man, learning the lesson from his childhood, will remember “I’d like to get away from earth awhile/And then come back to it and begin over.” That is, work needs to be balanced with play, daily routine needs to be combined with festive social occasions, variety and contrast are essential for the life of the spirit.

To get away from the earth for a while does not mean escape but transcendence, the rejuvenation of leisure and the refreshment of play. The child climbing birch trees goes up to come down and completes the cycle of a natural rhythm. Man too needs the alternation of permanence and change, order and variety. There is no fun in traveling one way, climbing and never going far enough or sliding but never jumping. This rhythmical change that is natural, smooth, and ordered completes a circle in which man returns to the beginning and looks forward to repeating the cycle again and again. The speaker in the poem only seeks a temporary respite from the duties and responsibilities that occupy him, not an abdication of his obligations: “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.” Man needs to leave the busyness of work and the regimen of toil in order to be more energetic, productive, and dedicated to the task at hand. Man needs to rest on the Sabbath to reclaim his humanity once again. The rhythm of going up and coming down prevents the dehumanization of overwork (never leaving “earth for awhile”) and the danger of escape from reality, the abrupt “snatching” away and never completing the unfinished work that remains.

The pure love of fun for its own sake the boy enjoyed in the swinging of birches is the beginning of wisdom, a simple truth to be remembered in all the phases of life. Persons of all ages need the nourishment of childhood memories that produce the lasting sources of joy. All persons need to be restored, renewed, and made whole with the pleasures that fill the heart and invigorate the spirit. Play and leisure are not just the luxury of the young but the elixir for all the ages of man. This balance or moderation or golden mean is the art of living that compares to the skill of climbing and sliding from birch trees— both the enjoyment of honest responsible work and the pleasure of lighthearted mirth. After reminiscing and fondly remembering the winter days that bent the birches for boys to climb, the speaker realizes that it is not just a childish pastime but a way of life: “That would be good both going and coming back. /One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” That is, one do no better than learning this art of arts. One goes up to come down. One takes a vacation to be more productive. One loves God in order to love one’s neighbor. Life is rhythmical, musical, harmonious change–not escape from reality, not violent destructive change, and not stopping in the middle of the cycle.

 

Birches

by Robert Frost

Written circa 1914

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.

Mitchell Kalpakgian

By

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Yes.

    I think he is also saying a purely “spiritual” heaven is not place for a human being. “Earth’s the right place for love.” Certainly the earth of the New Jerusalem.

  • Eamonn McKeown

    Once in Derry I climbed a tree to shoot at rabbits and found a cow trapped in mud. Never had chance of shooting a rabbit but saved a lost cow.

  • Sam Graff

    Hmm. Seems a much better poem now than when I first read it at 16.

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