Saturday, June 30, 2012

Robert Frost: Birches

There is so much to say about Robert Frost's Birches that it is hard to know where to begin. One could (and several people have, I'm sure) write an essay about what this piece means, but the purpose of this blog is not so much to engage in an analysis of what poems mean as much as it is to take a little time to appreciate the elements which the poet has employed to make the poem work. But, as we've seen with the previous entries, poems work when the elements which are employed contribute towards the piece's meaning. So how a poem works cannot be divorced from what a poem means. So, as usual, I will have to devote at least a part of the post to unpacking the meaning of Birches. While I do not intend to do so comprehensively, it will take somewhat more space than usual to do it justice as Frost has packed this piece rather densely.

Let's begin with the obvious: the speaker sees bent birch trees. He likes to think that they're bent because boys have been swinging them. In other words, boys probably haven't been swinging them, but he likes to think that they have. In fact the "truth", as is stated in that almost editorial aside, is that the birches have been bent by a far more prosaic cause: an ice storm. So why, then, does he like to attribute the cause to boys? In part it is because it makes him nostalgic, reminds him of his own youth when he used to swing on the birch branches. But that's not all - even a casual reader should be able to appreciate that, as is so often the case in poetry, the birch tree is not merely a birch tree.

Swinging on the tree teaches the boy all there is to learn about not launching out too soon. Birch-swinging carries those who swing away from life's troubles, confusions and trials. When you're swinging up in the air on a birch branch you're not on earth. The poet would like to go by climbing a snow white birch toward heaven. Sounds almost spiritual, doesn't it?

In addition to the birch tree there is also the notion of swinging- literally a back and forth motion. The theme of swinging is introduced right in that first line with "bend to left and right" and then recurs throughout the piece: the boy goes "out and in" to fetch the cows, there is "summer or winter", the poet was a swinger of birches, but is not one now, but dreams of going back to be one; he would like to get away from earth and come back to it and begin over (is he hinting at reincarnation perhaps? "May no fate willfully misunderstand me and half grant what I wish and snatch me away not to return.") and he wants to climb until the tree dips and sets him back down again, "that would be good both going and coming back". Cycles and swings. Back and forth.

So what does one make of all of this? The poem opens by discussing the "Truth". Not truth, but "Truth" with a capital T, note. (Truth is peronsified as a she who barges in on conversations.) Ice storms bend birch branches down. They load the branches with such weight that the branches drag against the ground and though they do not break, they never manage to restore themselves completely but remain arched for life. Already, at this stage, while discussing truth the poet cannot hold off letting his imagination loose. The ice is not mere ice but is glass from the shattered inner dome of heaven, the trailing leaves are not mere leaves but the hair of girls thrown over their heads to dry in the sun. What a beautiful image. He is comparing the prosaic, otherwise sad image of birches being damaged by ice to rather beautiful pictures of young girls and sun and falling glass. The imagination here is a departure from reality, from the truth.

But, and this is an important "but" for the poet, he doesn't want to talk about "Truth". Truth is "matter-of-fact". It describes what really is, the way things are in reality and, as the poet has already showed us with his description of the ice-laden birches, the true picture of things holds no interest for him. He wanted to talk about something else but Truth has a way of breaking-in and interrupting. In a bracketed aside he suggests that he cannot be "poetical" when dealing with Truth. He sets up a dichotomy between truth and poetry even having just suggested through his very poetic description of ice-laden birches that the dichotomy is a false one.

So, while the poet talks of an escape from Truth, a departure from Truth, each time the birch returns him back to the ground again and, indeed, he wants to be on earth because "earth's the right place for love." He wants the leaving to be temporary. Swinging on the birch branch is simultaneously an act of play and a temporary departure from reality. It is imagination. It is, according to Frost, not Truth but poetry. Imagination, poetry, must push the boundaries, must reach towards those higher limbs and climb the trunk towards heaven, always pushing upward further away from imperfect burning, weeping, earth and Truth but always ready at the top of the arc to swing back down to earth again. And neither the climb nor the descent is easy. The climb is careful and painstaking, the descent an outward fling of the body, feet kicking.

A birch is an effective vehicle for all of this symbolic swinging: while it rises high above the pathless wood of life it remains rooted in the ground and attached to the earth. No matter how high one climbs you never severe your connection to the ground.


So, one can see that the birch and the act of swinging are both symbols for Frost. But there is an important thing to note about symbolism: the poem makes sense at a literal level. As a plain ordinary narrative there is nothing unfinished, confusing, incomplete or strange about it. One could read and appreciate the piece without ever diving below the surface. But Frost does not want you to do that and gives several signposts to the reader that there is more than just this birch and this boy swinging: there is the exuberant, almost over-the-top language of heaven's dome, a white birch reaching to heaven, girls' hair; there is that comment about Truth and poetry; there is that clever introductory line that tells you that what you are about to read about birches is imaginary; there are the recurring cyclical/swinging themes etc. These are signposts to the symbol.

And then, at the symbolic level, while there is a richly textured layer of interpretive meanings which Frost has packed into the poem, allowing the reader to develop their own understanding of what Frost is wanting to say, this poem buries forever that common misunderstanding which is chanted like a mantra by so many beginners to poetry: namely that the poem can mean whatever the reader wants it to mean. This is not a poem about suicide for example (it's fun, it's play), it's not a poem about drugs or lawlessness or colonialism or slavery or losing one's virginity. There is (deliberately) a limited spectrum of meanings which the symbols are capable of supporting. The literal characteristics of the symbols inform the symbolic meaning and content.


Consider the first three lines:

When I /see birch/es bend /to left /and right
Across/ the line/ of straight/er dark/er trees,
I like/ to think/ some boy’s/ been swing/ing them.

Each line has five iambs. Iambic pentameter. And this pattern occurs, with all sorts of variations in places, for the entire piece. While there are occasional rhymes, which I will deal with later, there really is no rhyme scheme to speak of. It is, in other words, blank verse. But it is blank verse with purpose. Just as the birch trees bend across the lines of straighter darker trees, so Frost causes the meter to spring and vary and strain against the iambic pentameter he has imposed. It is playful. It is imagination carefully climbing as high as it can away from the Truth of iambic pentameter while always bending back down again so that the form, while bending and straining, is never broken.

Look at the lines:

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.

The line
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish has two spondees: "flung out[ward]" and "feet first" so that the meter mimics the act of jumping.

In the line
Up to the brim and even above the brim Frost conveys the brimming over by pushing those two bisyllabic words in after two lines of monosyllabic words.

Look also at Kicking his way down through the air to the ground. Frost could just as easily and sensibly have written "kicking his way through the air to the ground" but those long words "ground" and "down" coupled with the long verb "kicking" prolongs the motion of the jump and the length of time spent suspended in the air.

And in
So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.

Frost puts in an extra metrical foot but, by doing so, creates a jouncy swinging cadence to these lines.

Sonics, assonance and rhyme

This piece has several instances of playful assonance and sonic appeal. Just some of the pleasurable instances for me: the clicking c's in "cracks and crazes" followed by the sibilant s sounds of the next lines in "soon the sun's warmth ...sweep away", there is the rhyme on load/bowed followed by the assonance of "low" in the next line, and then there is the assonance in the lines "He always kept his poise ...and so I dream of going back to be."

Some of the lines also rely on vowel sounds to produce subtle internal rhymes: down/ground; woods/afterwards etc


The tone of this piece is chatty and conversational. Frost employs the first person and addresses a "you", as if in normal conversation, with those chatty phrases "you'd think" "But I was going to say" etc. It is a monologue and with his choice of phrases Frost makes it come across as an improvised monologue. He treats the semi-hidden development and unfolding of his theme as something which is self-evident and doesn't need explaining, forcing the listener/reader to race mentally to keep up with him.

I wish I could write like this.

1 comment: