Text of the Poem

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. 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. 
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load, 
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 
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— 
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 
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 he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, 
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 
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. 
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.


  1. 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.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. 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.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. These lines represent an adult recognition that the speaker’s desire for transcendence is not literal. He does not wish to escape his life forever, thereby having his wish granted in actuality. Frost renders this thought through the imagined character of “fate,” a supernatural force who might hear the speaker’s request and grant it.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. 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.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. The image of the speaker’s weeping eye is telling. Though he offers us its cause—“a twig’s having lashed across it open”—there may be another, deeper cause at play, namely the sorrows and sufferings of earthly life. The speaker, after all, cuts his eye and weeps during a woodland walk which is in itself a metaphor for “life.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. Birch swinging involves climbing the slender trunk of a birch tree and then casting one’s body outward, bringing the treetop down to the ground. The speaker’s note here about “not launching out too soon” concerns the importance of getting close to the top of the tree before launching out so that the tree bends rather than uprooting and collapsing.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. This description of the birches represents an example of both personification and the pathetic fallacy. The speaker subtly imagines the birches as people “bowed/so low for long, they never right themselves.” As the poem unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that the speaker views himself as such a person, particularly when comparing himself to the carefree, birch-swinging boy he once was.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. In these lines, Frost creates a cascade of consonants, layering s and sh sounds to convey the imagery—both visual and auditory—of broken ice pouring down from the birch branches onto the firm snow below.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  20. Once again Frost employs auditory imagery that combines the sound of language with its meaning. As the breeze bends the birches, the branches bend until the layer of ice encrusting them “cracks and crazes.” These two words imitate the cracking sound of the ice splitting open.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  21. Frost weaves a great deal of imagery into “Birches.” These particular lines display Frost’s touch with auditory imagery. Frost evokes the sounds of birches as “they click upon themselves” during a passing breeze. The evocation of this sound is bolstered by the use of “click,” whose twin hard c sounds onomatopoetically mimic the clicking of the colliding birches.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  22. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  23. The central activity—and conceit—of the poem is birch swinging. This is a practice whereby one climbs to the top of a birch tree and swings outward, causing the slender tree to bend so dramatically that the treetop reaches down to the ground, allowing the person to dismount. As the poem develops, Frost envisions various metaphorical purposes the practice can fulfill.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  24. Frost wrote “Birches” in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter. The poem has no stanza breaks or other such ordering schema, only sixty lines of unobstructedly flowing pentameter. The uninterrupted, often enjambed blank verse gives the poem a flowing quality that imitates the speaker’s stream of consciousness as it moves organically from thought to thought.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor