The Sweet Poignancy and Optimism of Robert Frost's Poem 'Birches'

The Sweet Poignancy and Optimism of Robert Frost's Poem 'Birches'

Tuesday, 7 December, 2021

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in San Francisco but moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, when he was 11. Although he attended Dartmouth College and Harvard University, he never earned a formal degree. But even without the prestigious paperwork, he eventually became ‘the most celebrated poet in America,’ winning four Pulitzer Prizes and serving as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.

When Frost was 21, he married Elinor Miriam White — a smart girl with whom he’d shared the title of valedictorian in high school. They were married until her death in 1938, and she was a significant inspiration for his poetry.

This poem was published in 1915 in The Atlantic Monthly, shortly after Robert and Elinor moved to England and struck up new — and, we can only imagine, inspiring — friendships with other young poets, including Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Graves.

Living away from the US seems to have honed Frost’s perspective on home; many of his poems explore themes associated with the life and landscape of New England. They offer a zoomed-in snapshot of pastoral scenes, trees and snow, scenes from smalltown life, and quiet reflection. If you’re American, you probably studied Frost’s poems Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (… And miles to go before I sleep) and The Road Not Taken (Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both…) in high school English class.

This blank verse poem gets romantic about New England’s birch trees: the way the branches bend and swing, persevering through winter snow and ice (and the swinging of an energetic boy). They bend but don’t break or bow for too long, offering a way to sever ties — if just for a little while — with the pull of gravity, to climb and swing above the ground in the branches of the birches.


Birches — Robert Frost

  • 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 or 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.


Enjoy this reading of ‘Birches’ by Robert Frost himself:

Top image courtesy of kzww/Shutterstock.

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