I promised this post on Robert Frost’s “Birches” in the event that we have an ice storm. I don’t know yet whether we will have one, but we had frozen rain for much of the night, and as I write this (Wednesday morning) we are being attacked by a blizzard. So if I don’t arrange to have it posted right away, I could be thwarted by a power blackout.
Frost’s intention in “Birches” is to write about swinging on birches as a boy, not experiencing ice storms. But train of association leads him to go off topic and reminisce about ice storms. Thematically, however, it is not a digression at all, as we will see. Here’s how the poem begins:
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.
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-coloured
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—
Although his conversational style makes it appear as though he has digressed, the “matter-of-fact about the ice-storm” is getting at a darker reality: the storms of life drag us down. This sad truth is hidden by the breath-taking beauty of the ice storm and by the lovely image of girls drying their hair in the sun. Nevertheless, it is there: “once they are bowed/So low for long, they never right themselves.” This poet, who writes frequently about the weight of the world, who has been “much acquainted with the night,” is doing so again here.
So he recovers and think of an alternative, albeit less plausible, explanation: the trees are bowed over because a boy has been swinging on them:
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.
That is a joyous image drawn from his childhood. The image comes to him at precisely those moments when he needs buoying up:
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.
Having written yesterday about Sir Gawain’s grim slog through the forest as he is being pelted by frozen rain, I offer this as another image of existential crisis. But Frost is careful to qualify his wish. He’s not saying that he wants to quit life altogether, hard though it may be. In fact, the lines that follow contain one of the most life-affirming passages in American literature:
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.
And then, as though he has revealed too much of himself in this ecstatic declaration of love, he retreats back into Yankee reticence:
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
As you think about this poem, recall times when you have felt dragged down to the withered bracken by the ice as it piles up. When have you stumbled through the forest, an eye crying from a branch having lashed across it open? Frost tells us that, for all our suffering, we can learn to love this life.
One could argue that his climbing the trees is also a metaphor for his poetry, climbing black sentences up a snow-white page. Through the human imagination (which includes childhood memories), we are able to soar above our difficult lives. But our poetic souls start with those lives and must return to them. It’s good to go and it’s good to come back.
In tomorrow’s post I will be writing about my cancer-ridden friend Alan, whose forest has definitely turned thorny and yet who continues to express a deep love for life. In fact, the prospect of suffering and death has led him to appreciate life that much more. The ice storm that is bending his body is revealing unexpected beauty.
Addendum: Years ago, when I was teaching Robert Frost’s poetry to a group of high school English teachers in Slovenia, I met one who had been a swinger of birches as a child. The teacher was from the Bela Krajina region, known for its birches, and the poem brought back good times.
Another Frost poem brought back much darker memories. In “Mending Wall” Frost famously writes that “good fences make good neighbors.” The teacher said that, when she was a girl, a boundary dispute involving a few meters led a neighbor to hit and kill her father with a shovel. The family could no longer take care of the farm and had to move to the city of Ljubljana.
One can never anticipate the stories that a poem will elicit from a reader.