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Comment 11 of 98, added on November 23rd, 2011 at 7:19 AM.
That addresses several of my concerns actaully.
Comment 10 of 98, added on January 11th, 2010 at 8:16 PM.
I think this poem is a wonderful example of how important nature was to
Transendetalists. Their main concern was how nature affected them and
whether or not they could find signs of God in nature. I am not a
Transendentalist but I definetely have a great respect for Emerson and his
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Comment 9 of 98, added on September 7th, 2008 at 8:28 PM.
“Birches” is a poem of fifty-nine lines without any stanza breaks. However,
the poem does contain several sections that move from naturalistic
description to a fanciful explanation of why the birches are bowed, and it
concludes with philosophical exploration of a person’s existence in the
Lines 1 – 4
Frost opens the poem with an image of the birches bent “left and right /
across the lines of straighter darker trees” (lines 1 – 2) and quickly puts
forth one explanation for how they got that way: a boy had been swinging on
them. Right away, however, he admits this is false, saying in line 4, “But
swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.” However, the image of the playful
boy is a powerful one for Frost, and he will soon return to it.
Lines 5 – 11
The first break in the poem occurs in line 5 when Frost admits that it is
ice storms, not boys, who bend down the birch trees. The next few lines are
a beautiful description of birch trees, their branches frozen and encrusted
with ice in the morning after an ice storm. However, their beauty is only
short-lived; soon, in line 9, the sun “cracks and crazes their enamel” —
the ice, which breaks and falls into the snow. This is the first hint of
destruction in the poem (other than the birches themselves).
Lines 12 – 20
Frost makes another break in line 13 when he raises the symbolic level of
the poem with the sentence “You’d think the inner dome of heaven had
fallen.” This line not only anticipates the last lines of the poem, but it
also signals the beginning of a retreat from reality. The language of the
poem becomes more “poetical”; for the first time, Frost uses a simile,
comparing the bowed birch trees to girls on all fours, their hair hanging
down in front of them. More than just destruction, the imagery now turns to
symbols of conquest: the birches are bowed so that they can never right
themselves; the image of the girl is also the image of a captive kneeling
before her captor. This becomes an important theme in later parts of the
Lines 21 – 27
The second really significant break (the first was in line 5) occurs now.
Frost dismisses the ice storm as a cause of the birches’ condition in favor
of his original explanation that a boy had bent them — despite the fact
that he knows that a boy didn’t do it:
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
The word prefer is very important here. Frost rejects the narrow
limitations of the outside world in favor of his own poetic vision.
However, this world must necessarily have its own limits, for it inhabits
only his own mind. Likewise, the boy is separated from other people and
Lines 28 – 35
In these lines, Frost returns to the theme of conquest. The boy “subdues”
his father’s trees, riding them until he takes the “stiffness” out of them,
leaving him, in lines 31 – 32, absolutely victorious over the trees: “not
one was left / For him to conquer.” The boy’s conquest of the trees mirrors
the victory of Frost’s poetic imagination over the real world, for now his
vision has completely supplanted the ice storm as the cause of the trees’
Lines 36 – 40
These lines contain a description of the boy’s technique for climbing and
bending the trees. He must take painstaking care to reach the top of each
tree, which Frost describes in line 38 as similar to the care that one must
take to fill a cup “Up to the brim, and even above the brim.” This is an
important line. Frost is here describing a method of reaching beyond the
limits of things (filling a cup beyond the brim) to a realm beyond the
real. This is not just the internal world of his imagination but something
even greater — a theme he will begin to develop more fully in the
concluding sections of the poem. Also, the care taken by the boy is similar
to the careful construction involved in writing a poem, making the boy’s
actions in climbing the trees a parallel for Frost’s act of creating the
Lines 41 – 47
Frost begins this section (lines 41 – 42) with a note of nostalgia: “So was
I once myself a swinger of birches. / And so I dream of going back to be.”
This longing for the simpler days of childhood stands in sharp contrast
with the pain of the adult world, which is described as a “pathless wood.”
But this section also further develops the theme of the imagined world
versus the real world: the boy’s birch climbing has been wholly imaginary,
a peaceful, playful time when one person can alone remake the world as he
imagines it; in contrast, the real world lashes out at the narrator, and it
is clear that he will achieve no victory over it.
Lines 48 – 53
Frost now, in line 48, develops his idea of escaping into an imaginary
world: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile.” However, he also makes it
clear in lines 52 – 53 that he does not want to permanently escape the real
world and that such a fate is not even desirable: “Earth’s the right place
for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” It is almost as
if the limits of the real world must exist in order for the imaginative
world to exist. This is similar to the theme of Frost’s contemporary, the
American poet Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955), in his poem “Sunday Morning,”
in which he calls death “the mother of beauty.” The real world makes
possible the fantasies of the poetic imagination and makes them more
poignant because they cannot be reality.
Lines 54 – 59
In the concluding section of the poem, Frost ties these ideas together with
the image of the birch trees. The act of his poetic imagination — reaching
beyond the limits of reality — is now likened to climbing the birch tree.
The motion of the tree, which allows a person to climb to its top only to
bend down and drop him back on the ground, is in fact the way Frost wants
his imagination to work: to allow him only to approach “heaven” and then to
bring him back to the real world. This also ties in with the image of
filling a cup beyond its brim (line 38): it is possible to exceed the
limits of the real world but only a little bit, or else there is disaster.
The poem’s concluding line, which at first seems to be a bit of folksy
wisdom — “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches” — contains
darker possibilities: one could certainly do worse by not making the
attempt, that is, by not using one’s imagination, or one might actually
escape — the birch might not swing, but instead it might allow the climber
to leave the world of limitations entirely behind. The limits of the real
world may be painful, but they define one as a person (or as a poet); if it
is a solitary existence, it is still existence. Without limits, there can
be no love (see line 52) or, for that matter, any other human emotion.
Frost thus brings the poem back to the duality he expressed in the first
lines of the poem. The real world provides the limits that make his poetry
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