transcendence

Floyd C. Watkins: On "Birches"

"Toward heaven" but never to, never all the way. Frost fears transcendence. Despite all the apparent moralizing ("earth's the right place for love"), this passage is one of the most skeptical in Frost. He contemplates a moment when the soul may become completely absorbed into a union with the divine. But he is earthbound, limited, afraid. No sooner does he wish to get away from earth than he thinks of "fate" - rather than God. And what might be a mystical experience turns into a fear of death, a fear that he would be snatched away "not to return." He rejects the unknown, the love of God, because he cannot know it, and he clings to the finite: "Earth's the right place for love."

From "Going and Coming Back: Robert Frost’s Religious Poetry." South Atlantic Quarterly (Autumn 1974).

Frank Lentricchia: On "Birches"

In "Birches" (Mountain Interval, 1916) Frost begins to probe the power of his redemptive imagination as it moves from its playful phase toward the brink of dangerous transcendence. The movement into transcendence is a movement into a realm of radical imaginative freedom where (because redemption has succeeded too well) all possibilities of engagement with the common realities of experience are dissolved. In its moderation, a redemptive consciousness motivates union between selves as we have seen in "The Generations of Men," or in any number of Frost's love poems. But in its extreme forms, redemptive consciousness can become self-defeating as it presses the imaginative man into deepest isolation.

"Birches" begins by evoking its core image against the background of a darkly wooded landscape:

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.

The pliable, malleable quality of the birch tree captures the poet's attention and kicks off his meditation. Perhaps young boys don't bend birches down to stay, but swing them they do and thus bend them momentarily. Those "straighter, darker trees," like the trees of "Into My Own" that "scarcely show the breeze," stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will. The malleability of the birches is not total, however, and the poet is forced to admit this fact into the presence of his desire, like it or not. The ultimate shape of mature birch trees is the work of objective natural force, not human activity. Yet after conceding the boundaries of imagination's subjective world, the poet seems not to have constricted himself but to have been released.

    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.

Fascinated as he is by the show of loveliness before him, and admiring as be is of nature as it performs the potter's art, cracking and crazing the enamel of ice coating on the birch trees, it is not finally the thing itself (the ice-coated trees) that interests the poet but the strange association be is tempted to make: "You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen." Certainly there is no question of belief involved here. The linkage of the scientifically discredited medieval sphere with the heaps of cracked ice suggests rather the poet's need to break beyond the rigid standard of empirical truth, that he himself has already allowed into the poem, and faintly suggests as well the kind of apocalyptic destruction that the imagination seeks when unleashed (the idea that the inner dome has been smashed clearly pleases the speaker). Eventually Frost in "Birches" comes round to exploring in much more sophisticated ways the complex problem broached by this statement from a later poem, "On Looking Up By Chance At the Constellations":

The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,

Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.

The planets seem to interfere in their curves,

But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.

We may as well go patiently on with our life,

And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun

For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.

In "Birches" Frost looks not to natural catastrophe for those "shocks and changes" that "keep us sane" but to his resources as a poet:

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.

Manipulating the simile, the overt figure of comparison, is a dangerous ploy for the poet, implying often that be does not have the courage of his vision and does not believe that his mode of language can generate a distinctive perspective on experience. For Frost, however, and for any poet who is rooted in what I call the aesthetics of the fiction., the simile is the perfect figure of comparison, subtler even than metaphor. Its overtness becomes its virtue: in its insistence on the disparateness of the things compared (as well as their likeness) it can sustain a divided vision; can at once transmute the birches--for a brief moment nature stands humanized and the poet has transcended the scientific universe--and, at the same time, can allow the fictive world to be penetrated by the impurities of experience that resist the transmutative process of imagination. It is at such moments as this in Frost's work that the strategies and motives of a poetry of play are revealed. There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost's motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader's as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated. It may be argued that the satisfaction is greatest when it is autonomous: the more firmly the poet insists upon the severance of his vision from the order of things as they are and the more clearly that be makes no claim for knowledge, the emotive power of the poem may emerge uncontaminated by the morass of philosophical problems that are bound to dog him should he make claims for knowledge. Both poet and reader may submerge themselves without regret (because without epistemological pretension) in aesthetic illusion.

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 be found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

The shrewdness in Frost's strategy now surfaces. While claiming to have paid homage to the rigid standards of empirical truth in his digression on the ice-loaded branches, what he has actually done is to digress into the language of fictions. When he turns to the desired vision of the young boy swinging birches, he is not, as he says, turning from truth to fiction, but from one kind of fiction to another kind of fiction: from the fiction of cosmic change and humanized nature to the fiction of the human will riding roughshod over a pliable external world. And the motives for all of this fooling? I think there are two: one is that Frost intends to fox his naturalistically persuaded readers; a second is that this is what his poem is all about--the thrusting of little fictions within alien, antifictive contexts.* As he evokes the image of the boy, playing in isolation, too far from the community to engage in a team kind of sport, he evokes, as well, his cherished theme of the imaginative man who, essentially alone in the world, either makes it or doesn't on the strength of his creative resources. And now he indulges to the full the desired vision that be could not allow himself in the poem's opening lines:

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 be flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

One figure seems to imply another--the image of the farm youth swinging up, out, and down to earth again recalls the boyhood of the poet:

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.

For anyone but Frost the "pathless wood" is trite. But for him it carries a complex of meaning fashioned elsewhere. The upward swinging of the boy becomes an emblem for imagination's swing away from the tangled, dark wood; a swing away from the "straighter, darker trees"; a swing into the absolute freedom of isolation, the severing of all "considerations." This is the transcendental phase of redemptive consciousness, a game that one plays alone. The downward movement of redemptive imagination to earth, contrarily, is a movement into community, engagement, love--the games that two play together:

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.

One really has no choice but to be a swinger of birches. In the moment when, catapulting upward, the poet is half-granted his wish, when transcendence is about to be complete and the self, in its disdain for earth, has lofted itself into absolute autonomy, nothing having any claim upon it, and no return possible, then, at that moment,, the blessed pull of the earth is felt again, and the apocalypse desired by a transcending imagination, which seemed so imminent, is repressed. At the end of "Birches" a precious balance has been restored between the claims of a redeeming imagination in its extreme, transcendent form, and the claims of common sense reality. To put it in another way, the psychic needs of change--supplied best by redemptive imagination--are balanced by the equally deep psychic need--supplied by skeptical ironic awareness--for the therapy of dull realities and everyday considerations.

* The swings in consciousness between fictive and objective worlds are reflected in a series of perfectly placed linguistic pivots. Consider: the conjunctive "but," lines 5, 21; or the conjunctive "and," lines 42, 49, 55; or the subtle semantic ambiguity of "shed" (line 10) and "trailing" (line 18) which points us simultaneously outward (in objective reference) to the inhuman world of nature--of birches as birches--and inward (expressive reference) to the warm, ambient world of Frost's consciousness, of bent birches as girls throwing their hair before them, drying in the sun.

From Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self. Copyright © 1975 by Duke UP.