The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Birches” is an enduringly popular lyric by one of the United States’ most celebrated poets. In fifty-nine lines of blank verse, the poem presents a description of birch trees in a New England countryside, scenes of a boy swinging from these trees, and reflections on the meaning that being “a swinger of birches” has in Robert Frost’s life. He addresses the reader in an informal, conversational manner, using the first person “I” and addressing the reader casually as “you.” Sometimes poets create first-person speakers who are quite different from themselves. In “Birches,” however, Frost seems to be speaking in his own voice: as a grown man who has often observed and mused upon the birch trees he is describing, who remembers swinging from birches as a boy, and who has endured the adult tribulations he discusses late in the poem.
Frost reinforces the effect of conversational informality by casting the poem in continuous form. Rather than dividing the poem into stanzas or other formal sections, Frost presents an unbroken sequence of fifty-nine lines. Within this continuous form, however, Frost does shift his focus and tone, sometimes abruptly, as if he were digressing in a conversation with the reader. In this way, Frost’s major shifts reveal five sections in the poem.
In the brief first section (lines 1-3), Frost muses that when he sees birch trees that are bent over, he “like[s] to think” it is because “some...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The key action described in “Birches” consists of swinging free of the constraints of the earth, up toward heaven and through the air, before landing on the ground again. Through his careful organization of imagery, tropes, and myth, Frost designs the poem as a delightful reflection of its content. That is to say, he takes the reader through a series of swings back and forth between earthbound realities and imaginative possibilities.
The first section of the poem, for example, swings from a real image that Frost has observed (birches bent over) to a myth he would like to believe (that the birches are bent because of a boy’s play). In the second section, though, the poem swings back grimly toward reality, as Frost presents dismal images of how ice left by winter storms actually bends the birches: “They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load.” Frost also observes ruefully, “once they are bowed/ So low for long, they never right themselves.”
The grim power of reality in the second section seems to inspire Frost to assert the countervailing power of his imagination even more strongly. He thus begins the third section by playfully personifying reality as a rude interrupter that he can easily dismiss: “But I was going to say when Truth broke in/ With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm.” Aware of his own impudence, Frost then imagines a mythical account of how the birches were bent by a boy whose powerful control...
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It is perhaps ironic that "Birches," set in a peaceful, almost idyllic New England landscape, first appeared during one of the most destructive wars in history. "Birches" was first published in 1915, when World War I was raging on the European continent. "Birches" shows little sign of the larger conflict that was engulfing the world; it is in no sense a war poem, and it displays no obvious political content. However, it is notable that there are many violent acts either shown or implied in the poem and that the language of conquest is conspicuous in the middle section of the poem.
Although Frost first reached prominence around the end of World War I, he had little in common with other poets, such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who also became famous at that point. For one thing, he was over ten years older than either poet; for another, he lacked the rebel sensibility that led the younger poets to reject traditional forms in favor of a new poetics that are today called modern. Pound and Eliot were influenced by poets such as Baudelaire, author of "Flowers of Evil," and by his successors, French symbolist poets such as Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mal-larme. Their poems not only made use of a rich vocabulary of symbolic expression (often drawn from religious or mythological sources) but also turned away from traditional verse forms, which they found too rigid and artificial to express their ideas and feelings. Pound and Eliot (in his early...
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Topics for Further Study
Frost remarks that "Earth's the place for love" and does not want to be separated from it. Do you agree? What do you think this means about Frost's attitude about the afterlife?
Frost's poems are intimately connected with the natural environment and climate of New England; for example, the ice storms that bend down the birches. What is unique about the climate or area in which you live? Search for poems in which your area or climate has been celebrated.
Write a poem about your own childhood or on how you remember your childhood. Do you think you were more innocent then than now? If so, or if not, explain whether or not that childhood innocence is something to be desired.
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A videocassette, New England in Autumn (1998), distributed by Monterey Home Video, includes footage of Robert Frost's homes in New England and readings of his works.
Another video, Robert Frost (1988), includes interviews with Seamus Heaney and other poets and a dramatic reading by Joan Allen of one of Frost's poems.
Henry Holt & Co. has produced an interactive computer resource on CD, Robert Frost: Poems, Life, Legacy (1998). It includes an interactive documentary, 1,500 pages of critical and biographical literature, and 69 poems read by Frost himself.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969) includes all of the poems mentioned in this article and remains the standard source for Frost's work.
The American poet Galway Kinnell also features New England as the setting for many of his poems. His Selected Poems (1982) includes "For Robert Frost," an account not only of his visit with Frost but an assessment of his life and career as a poet.
Homage to Robert Frost (1996) includes essays about Frost and his poems by (among others) Nobel Prize winners Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott.
Peter Davison's The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, 1955-1960 (1994) examines Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath, among others, who were some of the best poets working in the United States at the time.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Frost. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
Burnshaw, Stanley. Robert Frost Himself. New York: George Braziller, 1986.
Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
Galbraith, Astrid. New England as Poetic Landscape: Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
Gerber, Philip L. Robert Frost. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
Lathem, Edward Connery. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Potter, James L. The Robert Frost Handbook. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Thompson, Lawrance Roger, and R. H. Winnick. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bagby, George, Frost and the Book of Nature, Tennessee University Press, 1993, pp. 50-52.
Cox, Robert M., "Robert Frost and the End of the New England Line," in Frost: Centennial Essays, edited by Jac Tharpe, Mississippi University Press, 1974.
Ellis, James, "Robert Frost's Four Types of Belief in 'Birches,'" in the Robert Frost Review, 1993, p. 71—3.
Frost, Robert, "The Unmade Word," in Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays, edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson, Library of America, 1995, p. 697.
Hart, Jeffrey, "Frost and Eliot," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, Summer 1976, pp. 425-47.
Ingebretsen, Ed, "Earth's the Right Place: The Sentence of Love," in Robert Frost's "Star in a Stone Boat": A Grammar of Belief, Catholic Scholars Press, 1994.
Jarrell, Randall, Poetry and the Age, Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.
Kemp, John C., Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist, Princeton University Press, 1979.
Lowell, Amy, North of Boston, in New Republic, Vol. 2, February 20, 1915, p. 81.
Oster, Judith, Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet, Georgia University Press, 1991, pp. 59-63.
Parfitt, Matthew, "Robert Frost's 'Modern Georgics,'" in the Robert Frost Review, 1996, p. 54-5, 67.
Perkins, David, A...
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