Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Birches” is a popular poem largely because it so satisfyingly represents the loveable side of Robert Frost. The poem neatly encapsulates much of what is most familiar and endearing about this poet: his vivid description of a New England natural scene, his folksy voice mixing plain talk with whimsy and imagination, and his clear development of simple images and actions into accessible symbolic meanings. Further, the conclusion of the poem is warmly reassuring, making the conflict between realism and romanticism seem reconciled so that earthly realities do not ultimately seem too harsh or discouraging, and playful imaginings do not seem too whimsical or quixotic.
Seen from another perspective, however, “Birches” also reveals a more sophisticated view of the theme of the relation between imagination and reality. Though in general terms the poem presents these two realms as in conflict, Frost also delights in showing that realistic and imaginative language often dissolve into each other, so that the dichotomy between them is not as clear as many people (including the speaker of the poem) seem to think it is. For example, in the second section of the poem (the one mainly concerned with the actual “Truth” about how ice storms bend the birches), the fervor of Frost’s observations leads him into some wildly imaginative tropes. Ice shattered by the sun becomes the metaphor “heaps of broken glass to sweep away” that seem to have fallen from the...
(The entire section is 479 words.)
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The Imagination vs. the Real World
One important theme of "Birches" is how Frost uses his poetic imagination to transcend the limits of the real world. He rejects the true reason the birches have been bent over in favor of his own fanciful explanation. On some level, he is claiming that this act of the imagination embodies a larger "truth" and is a worthy task, one that must be made with great care and diligence.
On the other hand, Frost makes it clear that one must remain within the natural world itself and that complete escape into the world of the imagination is impossible and not even desirable. It is this tension within the poem that makes each world both appealing and painful—the real world might be a place of pain, but it is also the place for love; the imaginary world is innocent, but it is also solitary and, by extension, loveless.
The Need for Limits
In "Birches" and many other Frost poems, the limits imposed by the real world are seen not only as a consequence of being in the world but as a necessary condition for existing as a person. The borders of the world define a person and place him or her in the real world, just as the birch trees are bent back toward the earth by the ice storm. In much of Frost's work, the idea that one could remove all the barriers between oneself and the world is at best undesirable and at worst terrifying. Thus, in "Birches," Frost pleads that "no fate willfully misunderstand...
(The entire section is 867 words.)