Birches - Robert Frost Birches Summary & Analysis [Non-African Poetry]
Non-African Poetry: Birches by Robert Frost Birches Summary, Setting, Author's Background, Themes, Subject Matter, Techniques and Style for JAMB, WAEC and NECO Literature Students Syllabus.
It is no longer news that the above selected poetry is among the selected texts for literature students in the WAEC, NECO and JAMB Syllabus.

Well we have decided to help students by providing some insights such as summary and poetic devices and analysis of the poem to aid them understand and prepare ahead of their examination.

AUTHOR'S BACKGROUND

"Birches" is a poem by American poet Robert Frost (1874—1963). It was included in Frost's third collection of poetry Mountain Interval, which was published in 1916.

Consisting of 59 lines, it is one of Robert Frost's most anthologized poems. Along with other poems that deal with rural landscape and wildlife, it shows Frost as a nature poet.

The entire poem is a reflection of Frost's childhood memories of swinging on a particular type of tree called the birch. Birches are small to medium-sized trees found in temperate parts of the world. Frost grew up in the American state of New England, where children were known to be fond of swinging on birches. The poem is very philosophical in nature.

The poet also explores how the power of the imagination becomes a means of redemption and escape from the diverse problems that are integral to man's existence in this world. Although, it is a temporary escape, it is emotionally gratifying. It is a poem of 59 lines.

The first 20 lines vividly describe the birch and the idea which comes to the fore is the flexible nature of the tree, how they can be bent temporarily by a boy swinging on them and permanently by ice storms. The language of the poem is simple and conversational in its style.

The poem swings in consciousness between reality and the imaginary and this is indicated beery clearly in the language.

INTRODUCTION

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
5 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.

10 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,
15 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

20 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-

25 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

30 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 son
And so not carrying the tree away

35 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,

40 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

45 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.

50 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 cliimbing a birch tree,

55 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.

SETTINGS

"Birches" was published in 1916. It should be noted that Frost's "Birches" was influenced by his boyhood experiences of winter and summer in Northern New England, where he would swing on birches, which was a popular game for children in rural areas of New England, one of the states on the east coast of America.

SUBJECT MATTER

In this poem, the reader is made to understand that the narrator looks at the birch trees in the forest and imagines that their bent nature is as a result of a boy "swinging" on them.

However, he knows that the bending of the tree branches has been caused by ice, as a result of the weight of the ice on the branches. For the poet, climbing the birch is a means of freedom and thus the act of swinging on birches is presented as a way to escape the hard reality of life in its entirety, even if for a brief period of time. When the boy climbs the tree, the assumption is that he is ascending towards a celestial plane of experience, "heaven", a place where he and the elements of his imagination can be free. Climbing a birch is an opportunity to "get away from earth awhile/And then come back to it and begin over" (II. 48 — 49).

The idea that runs through the poem is that the harsh realities of life make it imperative that a place of refuge, even if it is for a brief period of time be created or located. The birch tree becomes a transcendental escape from the worries of this earth.

This conception is derived from a psychological reading of the poem. In this case, climbing birches seems synonymous with the imagination and the imaginative act is a push toward the surreal, the less practical and pragmatic.  The poem is therefore very graphic. The poetic persona remembers his childhood days of climbing the birch trees and he is nostalgic.

He takes the joy to describe the life/span of the birch tree. He describes the processes of leaves production to its withering with much childhood gusto. He explains the beautiful sight of the tree after the rain and after the breeze. He also describes how the shells crack open, causing a heap on the ground.

He describes the beautiful sight as the dome of heaven falling. After being so engrossed in the sweet imagination, the poetic persona escapes out of his platonic utopia and reality dawns on him, the "truth broke in". Even in the act of swinging, the boy learns some vital lessons like not "launching out too soon" and keeping his poise or composure while climbing.

The poetic persona again comes to the realization that he has once been a swinger of birches. He dreams of going back to that life. He proceeds to the main message of the poem that it is when one is weary of life that he desires to escape its harsh realities (this is as a result of the challenges and burdening responsibilities of adulthood).

However, in life, one cannot escape from the harsh realities so likewise life's responsibilities can be sometimes unavoidable. Thus, the poet knows he will still have to face life but he at least desires some little respite from the challenges of adulthood. He then consoles himself with the fact that the earth is a place of love so it is worth living.

However, towards the end of the poem, the poet goes metaphysical by making references to heaven as the only place where one can find rest.

Stanza One

Lines 1 - 5: The opening lines set the stage for the subject matter of the poem. The flexible nature of the bitch tree captures the poet's attention and kicks off his meditation. When Frost finished writing the poem, the original title was 'Swinging Birches'.

This title seems to be a more accurate description and depiction of the contents of the poem, especially the subject matter and its mood. As stated above, in writing this poem, Frost was influenced by his childhood experience of swinging on birches, which was a popular game for children in rural areas of New England when he was young.

As noted earlier, too, the poetic persona is aware that the bent branches of the birch tree is as a result of ice storms. However, in order to create the memories of his childhood, he prefers to 'think some boy's been swinging them' (I. 3). By doing this, he is transported to the good old days of his childhood through his imagination.

Thus, the poetic persona connects with the desire in everyman to escape from the grim details of life into a world of bliss and happiness, even if it is short-lived and temporary.

Stanza Two

Lines 6 - 13: In these lines, the poetic persona has returned back to his childhood in his imagination. He begin to appreciate nature and the season.

He also describes how the tree sheds off its shells after it has been affected by the breeze. These shells fill the ground and the poet describes them as "shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust" (l. 11) such that they become a heap, on the ground, to be swept away. The poet says that the heap looks like the "inner dome of heaven" (I. 13).

Here, one also finds an image of death. After the tree is battered by the breeze and beaten by rain, it sheds off its shells and the fallen shells, which are compared to "heaps of broken glass"(l. 12) appear like "inner dome of heaven" (I. 13).

This is suggestive of the fact that after man has experienced life, its beauty, turmoil and storms, he must be shed of his body, (he must die) and be swept away, to be translated into another realm of experience, heaven.

Stanza Three

Lines 14 - 20: In these lines, the poetic persona continues to describe what happens to the branches and leaves of the birch tree. At a metaphorical level of interpretation, the vivid description of the shape of the branches of the birch tree, bent, withered, but not broken is a symbolic reference to the life of every resilient human being, buffeted on the journey through the road of life by diverse vicissitudes but whose spirit is not broken.

These lines talk about the importance of perserverance and a strong resolve to endure even the most debilitating experiences of life. Engraved into these lines is an existential feeling that man is at the mercy of a host of overwhelming odds, which threaten his existence.

This is why in the poem, the poetic persona implies that this category of people, represented by branches "seem not to break; though once they are bowed/So low for long, they never right themselves" (II. 15 - 16).

Stanza Four

Lines 21 - 39: The poetic persona is struck by "Truth"(l. 21) as reality dawns on him that he is only exercising his power of imagination as an avenue to escape the harsh realities of the world within which he exists. Again and again, the lines reinforce the idea that our imagination as human beings gives us the opportunity to dream.

In these lines, the poetic persona wishes that the young boy that he has created in the world of his imagination would be able to subdue "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" (II. 28 - 32).

Overcoming and subduing all the birch trees of life, that is the myriad of problems, which man encounters in life, can only be a wish. It is implied that as one grows into adulthood, the euphoria of childhood disappears and one is faced with different challenges and responsibilities of adulthood which force each individual to accept reality.

Stanza Five

Lines 40 - 59: The poetic persona begins to have some nostalgic feelings of his past, as he tells the reader that "I was once myself a swinger of birches" (L41).

It does not end there, he feels like becoming a child again. However, there is a reason for this feeling. He feels like this when he is weary nd when "life is too much like a pathless wood" (I. 44). The poet is weary of the futility of life and the challenges of adulthood "where your face burns and tickles with the cobweb/Broken across it, and one eye is weeping/From a twig's having lashed across it open" (ll. 45 - 47).

The poet wants an escape from this world and even if he were to come back, he wishes to start over again as a child. It is implied in this poem that life is full of sorrow and sadness, which draw man back from realizing the full potentials of happiness. Therefore, the poetic persona seems to be of the view that life would be better on the birch tree, which would serve as a means of linking the earth with heaven. By climbing the tree, the poetic persona's links with the earth are not completely severed as he pushes "toward heaven" (I. 56).

Frost successfully establishes a connection between heaven and the earth in this poem, between the imaginative and the concrete, between reality and the esoteric.

THEME

1. The certainty of the transition from childhood to adulthood
2. The celebration of the imaginative spirit
3. The Utopian world of a child is compared with the dystopian world of an adult
4. Life is harsh

TECHNIQUES

1. Assonance
2. Alliteration
3. Simile
4. Hyperbole
5. Personification
6. Contrast
7. Symbolism
8. Allegory
9. Free Verse