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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 parts: the observation and description of trees bent by winter storms, the recollection of the techniques of birch-swinging, and the grown man’s dream, energized by his awareness of the claims of both “earth” and “heaven.” Each part leads casually to the next: “But I was going to say” to the second part, “It’s when I’m weary of considerations” to the third.

The poem is marvelously vivid and concrete in its descriptions of both ice storms and child’s play. The stir of the trees after acquiring their load of ice “cracks and crazes their enamel”; casting their load off, they leave “heaps of broken glass.” The reader is made to see the boy “kicking his way down through the air” and the man “weeping/ From a twig’s having lashed it [his eye] open.” Black and white are used suggestively and, as often in Frost, somewhat ambiguously. The white birches are first seen against the background of “straighter darker trees.” The sun shining on the ice coating of the tree trunks turns them prismatic. The boy climbs “black branches up a snow-white trunk/ Toward heaven” (“toward” being significantly italicized, for heaven is not attainable), the white intimating the pure and heavenly aspiration, the black, the necessary physical, earthly steps, the “going and coming back.”

Far from being the simple reminiscence of a sentimental adult, the poem not only acknowledges that returning to the birch-swinging of childhood is a “dream” but also assesses the significance of the game from a mature viewpoint. Part of maturity is coming to understand and articulate the profundity of early experience.

Summary

(Poetry for Students)

"Birches" is a poem of fifty-nine lines without any stanza breaks. However, the poem does contain several sections that move from naturalistic description to a fanciful explanation of why the birches are bowed, and it concludes with philosophical exploration of a person's existence in the world.

Lines 1-4
Frost opens the poem with an image of the birches bent "left and right / across the lines of straighter darker trees" (lines 1-2) and quickly puts forth one explanation for how they got that way: a boy had been swinging on them. Right away, however, he admits this is false, saying in line 4, "But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay." However, the image of the playful boy is a powerful one for Frost, and he will soon return to it.

Lines 5-11
The first break in the poem occurs in line 5 when Frost admits that it is ice storms, not boys, who bend down the birch trees. The next...

(The entire section is 1,777 words.)