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What are some literary and figurative devices used in "Birches" by Robert Frost?

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willhaynes | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted October 30, 2010 at 5:46 AM via web

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What are some literary and figurative devices used in "Birches" by Robert Frost?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted October 30, 2010 at 11:31 AM (Answer #1)

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Robert Frost's "Birches" is a poem of fifty-nine lines without any stanza breaks, a condition that indicates the simultaneous flow of imagination with the vision of reality.  Frost's poem has as its controlling metaphor that the real world stimulates the world of the imagination. In order to express this controlling idea, Frost employs figurative langauge:

  • In the first fifteen lines Frost uses the metaphor of a boy swinging the limbs of the birch tree for what nature really does.
  • The poet describes the tree limbs in the winter with imagery "Loaded with ice," that cracks and "crazes their enamel."  The use of the word enamel is also metaphoric, comparing the bark to enamel.
  • The snow is metaphorically compared to "broken glass" that is swept away.
  • There is personification given to the birches that "never right themselves" and "trailing their leaves on the ground."
  • Lines 18, 19, and 20 contain a simile:

trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and kees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

  • There is another simile in 44

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

  • Personification is in line 21 as

Truth broke in

With all her matter-of-fact about the ice storm

  • More imagery appears in lines 55

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

  • Alliteration recurs throughout the poem:

Soon the sin's warmth makes them shed crystal shells (repetition of /s/

To learn about not launching out too soon. /t/

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more /t/

That would be good both going and coming back /g/

Frost returns his metaphor of one's being a "swinger of birches" as one who uses creative imagination.

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jmj616 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

Posted October 30, 2010 at 11:16 AM (Answer #2)

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Like most of Robert Frost's poems, "Birches" uses a steady meter, in this case a classic "blank verse" of 10 syllables per line.   Frost once said that writing poetry without a set meter (free verse) would be like playing tennis without a net.

Some of the figurative devices in this poem are as follows.

a) Metaphor (comparisons that do not use the word "like" or "as"):

the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

(The branches of birch trees are not made of enamel, of course.  The poet is comparing their hard, iced-over surface to 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

(The poet compares bits of broken ice to "heaps of broken glass".)

b) Alliteration (The repetition of initial consonant sounds)

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—

(In these 5 lines, a total of 6 words begin with a hard "c" sound.  Perhaps the poet wants to imitate the clicking of the ice-covered branches, in which case it is an example of onomatopoeia.)

c) Simile (Comparison using the word "like" or "as")

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.

d) Personification (speaking about inanimate objects and concepts as if they were human)

I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter of fact about the ice storm,

("Truth" is referred to as a female person who interrupts one's thoughts.)

 

e) Anaphora (the repetition of words or phrases)

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.

(In this little section, the words "one" and "not"  are used 4 times each.)

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