One of my all-time favorite poems is “Birches” by Robert Frost. Perhaps, my affection for the work has much to do with having to do an in-depth analysis of the poem for a senior English assignment. After revisiting this academic piece years later, I decided to post it in a somewhat revised form on my website. This analysis of a truly great poem deserves to be shared, especially as plenty of people today still want to know: what is the poem “Birches” about?
What is the Theme of “Birches” by Robert Frost?
Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” tells us that he himself was once a swinger of birches, and that he wishes he could go back to being one. He uses birch trees because of their pliability, their ability to bend, much like ourselves going through life itself. When writing this poem, Frost seems to have been going through a midlife transition, weary of the considerations of daily life, wishing to go back to those simpler days, to an innocent, playful youth where such considerations don’t exist. We all want a return to innocence.
A Summary Reading of “Birches”
“Birches” brings us the image of a little boy who loves to climb birch trees. He is so far from anyone else to play with and is left to his own creative devices to amuse himself. Here is this boy, who climbs every tree he can. When he reaches the top, he swings down the branches to the bottom. The boy does this to the point that it becomes an art and its own sport.
After a while, though, the boy conquers all of the trees. Then, he moves on with the rest of his life. That boy grows up to be a man, who is quite unhappy with the path, or lack thereof, of his adult life. He longs to return to swinging from birches once again.
Frost’s Use of Figurative Language in “Birches”
Frost uses similes in a subtle, but effective way. He says how life can become like a “pathless wood,” that sometimes in life you are walking, lost, through a forest, with no discernible exit in sight. But, as a “swinger of birches,” going to the top gives you a view of what’s above, and a chance to nearly touch heaven. Even when nature forces you back down, the wood no longer seems as dark, because you then know that earth isn’t only a vast, endless wilderness that can’t be navigated.
The Tone of “Birches”
The poet seems quite unhappy with his own life as he writes this. He calls his life a “pathless wood,” which is essentially, a place in which he has lost joy in life and finds himself tangled in the web of the many burdens of adult life. He wishes to start fresh again, as a swinger of birches, and hopes maybe to remain a swinger of birches. He feels that “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
How the Passages of “Birches” Connect
Throughout his work, Frost often uses nature scenes to begin a poem. By the description of a nature scene, he sets the landscape for which his poem will take place. In the very next passage he points these trees toward heaven. Then, with the coming of the ice storm, describes their unfortunate, permanent fall.
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.
Frost then wishes a different fate for these trees. He wishes he could see a boy climbing them, a boy who would appreciate these trees as not only a source of amusement but as an intimate childhood experience with nature. However, like many amusements, the boy eventually becomes bored.
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 image of the boy, however, is not entirely a literal one; rather, he is explaining a pattern that he sees in people through nature. Some people will fall from such trees and become too easily discouraged, just as people in life will fail and become too easily discouraged. The boy’s determination is to be commended here.
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.
If birch swinging was recognized as a competitive sport, this boy would easily be the best at it. But Frost uses those last two lines with a distinct purpose: the boy learned to get the fullest out of his experience. We often do not live each moment to the fullest; we don’t always appreciate and try to get all we can out of each moment.
As we grow older into adulthood, we tend to lose our drive to get all we can out of each situation which we face. There are many clichés which illustrate such a problem, but Frost offers a much more creative approach. Frost admires the boy, and wishes he could be more like him now.
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.
We all sometimes wish to return to our younger days, when we were much closer to nature, when we appreciated the simplicity of nature’s workings much more than we do today. In adulthood, many of us find ourselves clawing through this “pathless wood” that Frost mentions. It becomes a hopeless place, where every day is just another day to survive; there is no longer any real essence to each moment anymore, and each day brings new cuts and bruises.
Many of us feel that we need to get away from earth for a while, then come back and begin completely fresh. In the next passage, Frost is describing a midlife transition, where people look back over their life so far, re-examine their situation, and make necessary changes to live a happier life. Many people end up trying to start over, to get away and return to start anew.
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.
Frost expresses a wish for a second childhood. For the majority of us, that doesn’t seem possible. The fear that we will be misunderstood for our attempt to get a fresh jump on, or a new swing at, life keeps many away from that idea. But Frost seems to be getting at something far simpler. At the point in our lives sometimes referred to as the mid-life transition – though such categorization is trite – we tend to completely dislike our own path through the woods that we have taken through adulthood.
The wonder of Frost’s work lies in his poems so closely related with nature. There are so many things that can be learned about life through nature. Many people wish to leave this earth and never return. But then where would you be?
There is a purpose to climbing upward, however. Though we do not know what heaven really is, or if it truly exists, it is certainly a positive objective, and certainly worth pursuing. It may not be such a bad idea, to look at the world through that boy’s eyes, that each struggle in life is just another tree to climb.
Comments on the Language of “Birches”
The language of the poem is an aid to understanding. Though not necessarily literally straightforward, “Birches” is quite effective in displaying the message. The poem can be understood even in its literal sense, but other meanings can be realized. Extracting additional meaning from the words is not as difficult a task as it at first may seem.
The images of the trees bending back and forth could symbolize the turbulence of adult life. The image of the boy climbing them symbolizes innocent determination to climb and swing safely from the tree each and every time. The “pathless wood” is the darkest of the images, and is quite simply, a life with no discernible direction. One would think it possible that if one in this wood were to climb one of these trees, they may see the road leading out.
My overall evaluation of the language would be that it is concise and to the point, unlike some poems, such as Frost’s own earlier works, “Birches” does not play with words. There isn’t much exaggeration and distraction from the main idea of the poem. He uses vivid descriptions to illustrate the relation between the boy, the trees, and the tribulations and “considerations” of adult life.
My Closing Thoughts On the Message of “Birches”
“Birches” is one of my favorite all-time poems mostly because of the imagery. The tree that grows up to heaven is a tree that represents Life, and the different branches are different steps in life. We spend our lives climbing toward heaven, only for the top to bend over and deliver us back to the ground. We then start climbing again, never giving up. It is this struggle to climb that defines life. Some people give up this struggle and find themselves completely lacking direction, and purpose.
Frost uses the birch tree not only because of its malleability but also its flexibility, that after a time it may regain its shape and stand straight upward again. Many people find their own lives bent under certain circumstances, to the right or left, because of an action that they made. Sometimes, we jump too soon in reaction to a serious life event and don’t think it through, leading us to unhappiness. Or, it could be jumping headfirst into a relationship and trying to take it too fast, leading to heartbreak. It could also be rushing into some important project that didn’t have to be rushed and it fails and leads to ruin.
Some people right themselves after such mistakes, but others will let themselves topple, and be overcome by a great downward burst, much like an ice storm. It is important that we continue our upward climb through earth, toward heaven, toward an upward goal which may or may not be heaven. The climb is the pith of our existence. So, the purpose of the poem “Birches” is to remind us of the fact that we fall back down to earth every now, and this is just because we are fallible and human.