George F. Bagby: On "Birches"

The first twenty lines of "Birches" clearly hint at Promethean tendencies. The poem is set at that time of the natural year which most suggests imaginative stirrings: the springtime moment in the imagination's life when it begins to rouse itself from winter lethargy. Though immobilized by their wintry covering of ice, as the Eolian "breeze rises" the birches move "and turn many-colored / As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel." "Soon," warmed by the sun, they "shed crystal shells," like the human beings of "Sand Dunes" casting off dead external coverings to take on new shapes and new vitality. The evidences of that spiritual molting, as many have noted, echo the Promethean outreach of Adonais: "Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away / You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen." And, though the birches are permanently "bowed" by the ice storm, they remain suggestive of aspiration: "You may see their trunks arching in the woods / Years afterwards," still straining toward that inner dome of heaven.

In the poem's central fiction, Frost adroitly converts the birches from emblems of Promethean aspiration to emblems of natural fact conquered by that aspiration. Rather than an ice storm, the poet "should prefer to have some boy bend" the birches; this fictive explanation represents more clearly the central presence of human activity, and human domination of the natural ("One by one he subdued his father's trees"). The comparison used to describe the care which the boy takes in climbing to the very "top branches" of the birches—"climbing carefully / With the same pains you use to fill a cup / Up to the brim, and even above the brim "—reminds us that this is not only a poem about trees but a celebration of spiritual thirst.

But, in the last third of the poem, where he explicitly reads in the act of swinging birches a lesson for the governance of one's imaginative life, Frost draws back from the Prometheanism implied earlier in the poem: "I'd like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over." As that latter line suggests, the visionary assertion of "Birches" is ultimately less extreme than that of "Wild Grapes." As Richard Wilbur notes, the echoes of Shelley in this poem are ultimately used to argue against Shelley's Prometheanism: "’Birches,’ taken as a whole, is in fact an answer to Shelley's kind of boundless neo-Platonic aspiration" (113) .The famous closing lines of the poem clearly move toward a reconciliation of human aspiration and earthly reality .The poet hopes that "no fate" will "willfully misunderstand" him "And half grant what I wish and snatch me away / Not to return. Earth's the right place for love."

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.

The proper role of the mind or spirit is seen here, not as a conquest of the natural, not as a transcending of earth or a "steering straight off after something into space," but as an integral part of a larger process of give and take, "launching out" and return. The young girl in "Wild Grapes," because of her "not knowing anything" about "letting go," about accommodating natural fact, is carried off by the birch in that poem like a fish caught by a fish pole. The mature speaker of "Birches," on the other hand, knows how to use natural fact to reach its uppermost limits, to climb "Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more," but then to accept the end of the trip and be returned by the tree in a kind of cooperative effort. The imagination here again asserts its freedom and autonomy by dominating natural fact; but then, refreshed by that flexing of imaginative muscle, it "comes back" to natural fact to "begin over," now willing to accept the different but also "almost incredible freedom," as Frost puts it elsewhere, of being "enslaved to the hard facts of experience" (Letters 179).

Such a return or reconciliation would, for Blake or Shelley, amount to surrender. But Frost, like most other American nature writers, does not posit Blake's or Shelley's kind of inevitable struggle to the death between imaginative perception and natural fact. Like Thoreau (with certain exceptions), like Emerson in his more restrained moods, Frost believes that, in the final analysis, the two forces are capable of cooperating to achieve meaning. 

From Frost and the Book of Nature. Copyright © 1993 by The University of Tennessee Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title George F. Bagby: On "Birches" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author George F. Bagby Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Frost and the Book of Nature
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