When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Robert Frost’s poem, “Birches,” tells of a speaker’s longing to return to the days of his youth; as a child, he would swing on birches for fun, being away from the hustle and bustle of the world. Since he had no friends in those days, he would isolate himself from society and enjoy his privacy. Yet now, as he is describing birches, he must face his present responsibilities with people. He has to own up to the fact that life is difficult even as he struggles to maintain sweet memories. Thus, the poem traces a conflict between realism and fantasy.
In the poem’s third line, the speaker mentions that when he sees birches he would “like to think some boy’s been swinging them.” There is a personal interpretation to the birches being worn down for the speaker as we will see later. But he then says that ice storms wear the birches down better than boys swinging on them (line 5). He then proceeds to describe the process by which ice melts off the birches. In this section, the speaker will relate the birches to his own personal feelings: “And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed/ So low for long, they never right themselves” (lines 15-16). The birches seem to not break in that the speaker, though he may look to others as if he has his life under control, does not. He tries to make up appearances to please others. He has been bowed by the “ice storms” of life in that the life he has lived has been a turbulent existence as an adult. So hiding his pain is a difficult process. He cannot fully recover from some of the things he has suffered: the birches will never right themselves again. Indeed his pain has been so intense that “you would think the inner dome of heaven had fallen” (line 13). What seemed at time to be a peaceful childhood for the speaker eventually gave way to a much harsher existence. The speaker, once at the prime of life, now suffers under old age.
We see this in the next lines of the poem. The speaker chides Truth for interrupting his thoughts about the boy swinging on the birches with its “matter of fact” ways (lines 21-22). The speaker is angry that his sub-conscious mind demands an adherence to facts and not comforting fantasy. He wants to return to the days in which he was isolated from others, having liberty to play alone and be his own person. After he describes his childhood and experiences with birches, he goes back to the present tense regarding his life: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches/ And so I dream of going back to be” (lines 41-42). His dreams have been longings to return to a past that was easy and simple for him. But these days he lives under a harsher reality.
But interestingly enough, the speaker does not want to run away from his present existence forever. He will not abandon his duties towards other people. The speaker says “May no fate willfully misunderstand me/ And half grant what I wish and snatch me away/ Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love/ I don’t know where it’s likely to get better” (lines 51-54). The speaker desires to live in the here and now; though he may suffer at times, he does not truly believe in another ideal place for better happiness. He may even be questioning Heaven’s existence by thinking that Earth is the only right place for love. But then, who needs to be loved in Heaven seeing as those in Heaven are perfect and totally fulfilled? On Earth, we suffer, so we need loving care from others. If he withdraws form society, it is only long enough to recuperate and return to his daily routine. He just wants a brief outlet of escapism, and dreaming of his childhood allows him to do just that.