Tone in Birches
Tone 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.”
"like a pathless wood Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs Broken across it,..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
In these lines, “life” is really “adult life.” The vehicle of the metaphor—the pathless, unforgiving woods—reiterates the thematic duality in which much of existence is earthly and therefore painful. The poem posits that we are occasionally afforded moments of grace and transcendence, most encompassingly in childhood.
"So was I once myself a swinger of birches. And so I dream of going back to be. ..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
In a key passage, the speaker finally clarifies that he himself was once the boy he describes. Not only does the speaker reveal something of his past, he admits that he dreams “of going back to be” the birch-swinging boy he once was. The tone of the poem becomes more personal in this moment, for the speaker can no longer separate himself from the events at hand, nor can he conceal his own motivations.
"One by one he subdued his father's trees..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The story the speaker presents about “some boy” raises questions about the possibility of autobiography: Was the speaker once the boy? Are these memories from his own childhood? The speaker introduces the tale in impersonal terms, ostensibly discussing the life of a hypothetical boy. The autobiographical core of the story becomes increasingly evident as the tone becomes personal.
"I should prefer to have some boy bend them..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The speaker admits his own imaginative stance—objectively false but useful for his own musings. Before entering into a fictive rumination about “some boy,” he says “I should prefer.” He knows his account is false; but his goal is reverie, not reality. This tone of self-questioning and self-contradiction is central to the poem.
"when Truth broke in With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Once again, Frost’s speaker knowingly interrupts his own tendency towards romanticization. In these lines, the speaker reiterates the sober acknowledgement of the capital-T “Truth” in the face of his imagination’s desires. The reality—that an ice-storm caused the birches to bend—leaves no space for the speaker’s boyhood recollections. Nonetheless, he indulges those memories in the ensuing lines.
"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.