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Friday, 5 August 2016

Birches by Robert Lee Frost

Literary Analysis (Summary)

Birches is a romantic poem that appreciates the beauty of nature. A birch is an ornamental and pendulous tree that mostly grows near lakes and rivers because it requires well-drained soil for proper growth. This tree grows in temperate climate around the world. An example of such climate is New England in America where Robert Frost had his early childhood. New England is one of the earliest English settlements in America. The Connecticut River which feeds the coastal towns of New England nourishes the birches, which provide a sort of entertainment for children as they delight in swinging the tree.

Aside being a romantic poem, Birches is a pastoral poem that reflects on the complexity of adulthood and its overwhelming challenges. Thus, Frost employs the setting of a rural life in New England in the early twentieth century. In his childhood days, swinging of birches in the rural areas was a popular game for children. So, he was inspired by this childhood experience of swinging on birches which, in the poem, serves as escapism from the painful realities of adulthood. Hence, the poet-speaker switches from the world of reality to the illusionary world and vice versa. This lends credence to the speaker’s philosophical tone as he exposes that life is an embodiment of harsh realities that tosses one back and forth like a child on a birch tree.

The event of the poem begins when the poet-speaker walks along some trees and sees birches “bend to left and right”. The birches stand out among the “darker trees” surrounding it in a straight line. The speaker, in a subconscious mood, thinks the flexible birch trees are actually bent by some little boys swinging on them. Then, he realises that swinging does not actually bend birches permanently. He comes to the realisation that the bending is as a result of ice storms that have settled heavily on the birches after a morning rain.

Ice storms are caused by freezing rain storm and when it falls, it forms coats of ice on the objects. When these coats of ice form on birches, it would be so heavy such that it will increase the weight of its branches by multiple times, bending it “down to stay”. This is the sight the poet-speaker is faced with that “winter morning”. However, an ice storm is a type of winter storm. “As the breeze rises”, it loads the birches with ice, forming a colourful display.  As the sun creeps in, the glaze of ice cracks and shatters like “crystal shells”.  The heaps of broken ice that look like glasses give in to the scorching sun. It melts and sweeps away as though “the inner dome of heaven had fallen”.

Even with the heaviness of the ice storms, the birches refuse to break, although they’ve “bowed so low” to the massive pressure “for long”. “The load” has only hauled them towards the “withered bracken” plant on the ground, and they refuse to straighten up. The trunks of the birches form an arch “across the lines of straighter dark trees” in the woods. Being deciduous, birches shed their leaves on the ground yearly like young girls who bend with their hands and knees to dry their moistened hair in the sun.

However, this poem is an extended metaphor that ruminates on life and its overpowering trials. The ice storms on the birches imply the overwhelming harsh realities of life that weighs one down at certain times. The intricacies of adulthood is telling on the speaker. Even when he has bowed so low for long to life’s load of afflictions, he is not broken by its heaviness. He just wouldn’t give in to the weighty pressure of the ice storms of life. It is a fact that the transformation from childhood to adulthood comes with unpalatable experience. These experiences that seem not to “right themselves” weigh one down and threatens one’s life; but the speaker is unfazed and resilient.

Then, the poet-speaker is startled from his reverie to the world of reality. He realises that he had been engrossed in self-delusion, hence the need to face the “matter-of-fact”. The “truth” has dawned on him that the arching bends in the branches of the birches is due to the ice storms, and not swinging by some boys. Still, he prefers to stick to his previous imagination that the birches are bent by the boys swinging on them.

The speaker’s ideal boy is a herder who doesn’t like baseball, a game that was getting popular in America at that time. All he cares about is to play on his father’s birch trees, thrusting himself up and down and subduing them with pleasure. With this, Robert Frost paints a perfect picture of childhood. Children live in a world of simplicity, a sort of fantasyland, unlike the complicated world of adults. The child’s carefree world of innocence enables him to subdue his problem “until he took stiffness out of them.” But adults are burdened with so many challenges and saddled with liabilities that have stiffened their existence in life.

 To subdue life-shattering challenges that plague adulthood, according to the poem, one must assume the state of childhood. The child learns how to walk the road of life by “not launching out too soon”. He learns the ropes of healthy living. He also learns to comport himself living life carefully. The child climbs the birches “to the top branches” carefully keeping his balance with the same pains of filling a cup above the brim without spilling the content. As implied above, it is evident that the birches represent the ideal world of childhood where one strives and learns how to persevere to defeat life’s extremities. With these life’s principles, “one by one” an adult can conquer his travails “by riding them down over and over again” like birches until “not one was left”. In other words, the act of swinging on birches is portrayed as a way of escaping the hard “truth” of adulthood, even if it is momentary.

With the birches serving as a temporary respite to his afflictions, the poet flashes back, reminiscing on his childhood days in the countryside of New England when he used to swing birches. As the poet-speaker becomes weary of considering the volume of problems that torment humanity, he wishes he could go back to the merry days of his childhood when he had nothing to worry about life’s miseries, because “life is too much like a pathless wood”. He dreams of starting life afresh as a child. For him, a reflection on his childhood swing on birches is an opportunity to briefly get away from the complicated nature of adulthood.

Moreover, man’s existence in the world is plagued by diverse problems that “burns and tickles” with pain. As one weeps with the other eye from the cobweb of misery that afflicts one’s being, one eye is punctured with “a twig having lashed across it open”. As a result, one is broken. Life seems to be futile. The only means of relief seems like getting “away from earth awhile and then come back to it and begin again.”

Within this brief period of escape, he prays that his fate should not misjudge his wish for a temporary escape as death. Although he has been afflicted, “broken” and bent like birches by the ice storms of life, he doesn’t want to die. His determination not to give up exudes hope and doggedness in the face of dire challenges. He confesses that “Earth’s the right place to love”. All he needs to do when the troubles of life seems crumbling on him is to find solace in climbing a birch tree, swinging to heaven and back to earth. This would, at least, provide a short-term way out to the burden of his adult existence.  

The harsh realities of life
The perfect world of children
The challenges of adulthood
The healing power of nature
Strong determination to succeed
The futility of life

The poem is written in 12 chapters of 59 lines. It is written in blank verse, from the first person point of view.

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  1. More grace sir. You have given me confidence to teach this poem. It sounded like Greek before I came across your review. Thanks alot.

  2. More grace sir. You have given me confidence to teach this poem. It sounded like Greek before I came across your review. Thanks alot.