Robert Frost won four Pulitzer prizes, received over 40 honorary degrees, read at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy and was regarded as the unofficial Poet Laureate of the United States. He was praised for delivering the voices of real humans through traditional verse forms. One of his most highly-regarded poems, “Birches”, reveals much about the life of this beloved poet.
Frost was born in San Francisco. His father, a teacher and newspaper editor, died when Frost was eleven. His paternal grandfather moved Frost and his mother to live with him in New England, where he managed a mill. Frost’s ears began collecting the language of rural life. He explored the world as a young boy at play.
Around the world, kids climb trees for fun. Where I grew up, we bounced on the cottonwood branches that sprawled across the marshy ground. My wife had fruit trees that would break and not bend. Frost had birches to climb and ride like springs back to the ground.
When his “life is too much like a pathless wood”, he looks back upon those tree-swinging times with joy. I miss the days when life was only about having fun and all my adult troubles were still distant future. I feel this longing in Frost’s verse. He alternates between the play of a child and the reflection of a grown-up.
Frost was so proud when he sold his first poem (“My Butterfly” in 1894) that he proposed to Elinor Mirriam White. They married. Just before he died, his grandfather purchased the couple a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where they had six children. When Birches was published, Frost’s first and last born were already dead. Only two of his children would out-live him.
With two children and a father dying young, Frost was acutely aware of the brevity and fragility of life. This theme appears in Birches. He wishes “to get away from earth awhile” but quickly mentions he hopes not to be misunderstood and be snatched away “not to return”. He knows how quickly it can all end, therefore revels in the pleasures and memories.
I feel that his gratitude and revery for boyhood play stems from the fact that two of his children never lived long enough to swing birches. His other four were fortunate to have that chance.
From the Soil
For nine years, Frost worked his farm. He wrote early in the morning. He absorbed the speech of his neighbors and the details of his natural world.
In Birches, Frost delivers imagery unique to the experience of a rural New Englander. Ice storms that would leave trees “loaded with ice a sunny morning / After a rain” are foreign to a resident of Florida or Morocco. Yet Frost brings the sights and sounds right to the reader. “They click upon themselves / as the breeze rises” and “cracks and crazes their enamel”.
As a suburban kid, I never imagined the sort of isolation experienced by a child surrounded with open land, miles from the nearest neighbor. Frost puts me in the place of “some boy too far from town to learn baseball / whose only play was what he found himself”. The imagination developed in such a person fascinates me.
From Agriculture to Academics
Frost was unsuccessful as a farmer, so he turned to teaching. He taught English at the Pinkerton Academy and the New Hampshire Normal School before moving his family to England in 1912.
In England, Frost met Edward Thomas, Ezra Pound and other influential poets. His first book, A Boy’s Will, was published a year after his arrival. North of Boston was published the next year. Frost was active in his support of traditional form versus the new fashion of free verse, calling it “like playing tennis without a net”.
I feel the solid fundamentals in Birches. Frost uses all the tools like a good teacher should. He sets his rhythm with the first two lines, which are classic blank verse. Then he goes into country storyteller mode, using enjambments and end-stops to break up the flow. Scanning the poem, I see where he flips iambs to make trochees and sometimes bunches stresses to make punchy lines. But like a good jazz band, Frost gets back on rhythm every dozen or so lines with solid iambic pentameter.
His language is strong and tactile. I am a critic of excessive adjective use and Frost hardly uses any. His verbs are unique and rich, like how the boy did not climb, but rather “subdued his father’s trees”. This brings the concept of a battle of wills that prepares a youth for the challenges of adulthood.
Frost’s career as a writer, teacher and lecturer exploded. He taught at Amherst College off and on from 1916 to 1938. He taught summer and fall classes at Middlebury College for forty-two years, cementing himself as a chief influence on the next generation of writers. Capturing the unique intonations of the English language while exercising classic poetic skill was his trademark. Frost won Pulitzer prizes in 1924, 1931, 1937 and 1943.
I hear Frost’s lessons when I recall what my professors taught me. I hear him when I speak of poetry. No doubt he has changed the planet. When formless imagism was the trend, perhaps Robert Frost made sure the planet stayed a little bit the same.
When I think of the energy I spend crafting imaginative language and consider how little money it pays back, I remember:
“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
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.
Ice-storms do that. 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-coloured
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 wilfully 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.
- Photo of Robert Frost by Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- Photo of Frost by Annick MONNIER (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons