Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In “Birches,” the speaker’s attention is first caught by a cluster of bent birch trees that he knows were bowed by ice storms. The sight reminds him of his boyhood sport of swinging on birch trees, although such an activity does not permanently bow them. Swinging on birches is a form of play that can be done alone, the competition strictly between child and tree. It is a sport requiring poise and good judgment; for a safe and satisfactory ride, one must climb to the very top of the tree and “launch out at just the right moment. A country boy might expect to master all the birches on his father’s land.”
The speaker dreams of swinging on birches again. From the perspective of adulthood, he envies his childhood capacity for launching out anew, making a new beginning on a new tree. In his mind, the game has become a way of escaping from earth, where life sometimes seems to be a “pathless wood”—but he knows that such a game is not a permanent escape from earth and that part of the fun is “coming back,” for life is not always a pathless wood, and the earth from which he contemplates escaping is “the right place for love.” The mature man thus recognizes a symbolic value that he could not have consciously realized when he was young enough to be a swinger of birches.
The poem consists of fifty-nine easily flowing blank verse lines. Though “Birches” has no formal divisions, it can be separated into three, almost equal...
(The entire section is 529 words.)
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