The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

It is perhaps ironic that "Birches," set in a peaceful, almost idyllic New England landscape, first appeared during one of the most...

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

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...

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Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

A videocassette, New England in Autumn (1998), distributed by Monterey Home Video, includes footage of Robert Frost's homes in New...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969) includes all of the poems mentioned in this article and remains the standard source for Frost's...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Bagby, George, Frost and the Book of Nature, Tennessee University Press, 1993, pp. 50-52.

Cox, Robert...

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