Themes in Birches
The Conflict Between Fantasy and Reality: In the speaker’s stream of consciousness, two voices diverge and chatter along in a parallel tension. The first voice is that of fantasy; it longs for the woodland birches to stand as symbols of personal meaning. It assumes the birch trees were bent by a boy at play, a boy much like the speaker once was, glimpsing heaven in the exhilarating heights of the birches. The second voice is that of reality; it understands the “Truth” that the birches were bent by a storm and that any illusions otherwise are an indulgence. This voice’s “Truth” reaches much farther, however, for it knows that the glimpse of heaven high in the birches is merely a glimpse; one cannot escape the earth.
The Power of Memory: The speaker’s memories of childhood create a deeper layer of events and meanings in the narrative of the poem. Confronting the arching birches, the speaker is immediately reminded of his own childhood days spent swinging upon and bending birch trees. Because those childhood memories are so laced with bliss, the speaker, now laden with the responsibilities and difficulties of adult life, sees in his past the image of heaven. Looking at the birch trees afresh, he wonders whether such heaven remains available to him.
The Longing for Heaven and the Pull of Earth: The centrality thematic duality of the poem is that of heaven and earth. It is a tension which arises from the speaker’s boyhood memories of birch swinging, moments which were heavenly in their ascendent lightness and carefreeness. It is such a state of Edenic innocence the speaker longs for now as he strides the woods as an adult, freighted with the cares and sorrows of maturity. Gravity is the proper metaphorical force here, for the speaker feels weighed down toward the earth. The speaker strives to locate a resolution between his desire for heaven and his fate on earth.
Themes Examples in Birches:
Text of the Poem
"One could do worse than be a swinger of birches...." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The tone of the final line—humble, humorous, sober—carries in it the accumulated wisdom of the poem. Having glimpsed transcendence and yet realized the impossibility of escape from earth, the speaker understands that there is no perfection, no ideal path. To “be a swinger of birches” offers small tastes of heaven rooted in earthly return, with its reliable downward pull. This solution is less grand than worth passing along, as suggested by the speaker’s winkingly wise phrase “one could do worse.”
"both going and coming back. ..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The speaker reaches an equilibrated stance at the conclusion of the poem. The proper path is neither all earth or all heaven, all heaviness or all transcendence, but rather a sense that both sides have their place. “Both going and coming back,” both climbing up toward heaven and finally returning to earth, are “good.”
"But dipped its top and set me down again. ..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
As the poem arrives at its conclusion, the purpose of Frost’s use of blank verse becomes more clear. Just as the speaker cannot dwell in transcendence, just as the birches he hopes to climb would eventually “set [him] down again,” the meter allows readers no space for pause or revelation. With its refusal to stop for stanza breaks, the blank verse shuttles readers through the poem at a relentless pace. We can glimpse the heaven Frost points out, but we are carried forward nonetheless, just as the speaker is carried forever forward through his terrestrial existence.
"Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, ..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The down-swinging action of the birch trees takes on a new metaphorical meaning here. The speaker, trying to escape earthly, adult existence for a brief heavenly spell will necessarily be shuttled back down by the laws of nature.
"love: I don't know where it's likely to go better. ..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Having expressed his hunger for transcendence and heaven, the speaker stops and turns back upon himself, making a concession for earth: it’s “the right place for love.” This moment marks another example of the speaker’s—and, for that matter, Frost’s—tendency to question his own assumptions and desires. That mode of questioning leads the speaker to acknowledge that which cannot be felt in pure transcendence—love, of the earthly, relational kind.
"I'd like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
In an important turn in the poem, the speaker expresses a clear desire for a taste of the transcendence he experienced in childhood. The image of the bent birches draws up from the wells of memory the speaker’s childhood experiences of birch swinging, with all of the attendant joy and lightness of those times. Readers may recognize this poetic move—recollecting childhood with a reverential awe and envy—from the poems of William Wordsworth, particularly his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.”
"bracken by the load,..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The noun “bracken” refers to ferns. It can suggest a single plant or an entire layer of fern growth, the latter of which is most likely the case here. The description of the bracken as “withered” points to the broader condition of terrestrial life, suggesting its harsh nature and cycles of decay and renewal. Such earthly life stands in stark contrast to the heavenly states glimpsed briefly at various points in the poem.
"They are dragged to the withered..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Here Frost employs musical language to convey the image of the birches’ being weighed down by the freight of the snow and ice. Notice the string of liquid consonants—r and l sounds—as well as the subtle rhyme of “dragged” and “bracken,” which are connected by both assonance and the consonant pairing between g and ck. The particular suggestion here is that the collapse of heaven, made vivid in the prior line, is followed by a heavy, terrestrial sojourn. This thematic shift from heaven to earth is the central narrative of the poem. The speaker, an adult weighed down by the responsibilities of life, recollects his childhood experiences, which were comparatively heavenly.
"You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. ..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
In this line, Frost introduces a key thematic duality—that of heaven and earth. As in the religious uses of these terms, heaven and earth are mapped onto spatial reality through such dimensional pairings as high versus low and sky versus ground. Thus, in the birch grove heaven is metaphorically located upward, accessed by those who climb the birch trees; earthly life, with its woes and entanglements, remains rooted to the ground.
"But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay As ice-storms do...." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Throughout the poem, Frost’s speaker adopts a stance of self-questioning. The speaker first puts forward a claim, often fanciful or romantic, and then questions that claim, replacing it with a more realistic one. An excellent example of this can be found in lines 3 through 5, wherein the speaker first “like[s] to think some boy’s been swinging them,” only to immediately assert the more realistic interpretation that it was an ice-storm that bent the birches. This tension between romanticism and skepticism is one of the hallmarks of Frost’s poetry.