19 pages 38 minutes read

Robert Frost


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1915

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Summary and Study Guide


“Birches” is a 59-line poem by Robert Frost, written in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter. Originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in August 1915, Frost included the poem as part of his third collection, Mountain Interval, in 1916. With rich sound texture and evocative natural imagery, “Birches” recounts the speaker’s experience viewing a copse of birch trees, which provokes a series of memories and philosophical musings. In this way, “Birches” shares thematic concerns with other Frost poems of the era, like “The Road Not Taken” or 1923’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” both of which also examine themes of aging, spirituality, or mortality and death.

“Birches” presents many of Frost’s other hallmark characteristics, from his use of colloquial, New England speech and that natural ease of his voice, to his crystalline focus on the natural image. Over the past century, “Birches” has become one of Frost’s most anthologized and cited poems, offering an archetypal representation of his poetry as a part of the American canon.

Poet Biography

Four-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, California, in 1974. Frost’s father died when Frost was 11, and the family subsequently moved back to New England, where their family originally hailed from. Frost was co-valedictorian of his Lawrence, Massachusetts High School with Elinor White, the woman who would later become his wife. Upon graduation, Frost enrolled in Dartmouth College, and later Harvard, but did not complete a degree at either. He and Elinor moved to New Hampshire to establish a farm, but upon failing to do so, they relocated to England in 1912.

Frost experienced little success publishing his poems in the United States until that point. During his time in England, he formed friendships with writers like Robert Graves and Ezra Pound, the latter of whom proved influential in promoting and publishing Frost’s work. Over the course of his three years in England, Frost published his first two poetry collections, A Boy’s Will and North of Boston. Their success provided the foundation he needed to continue his work upon the family’s return to the United States in 1915, where he soon became one of the most famous and celebrated poets in the country. He continued to publish widely, releasing collections like Mountain Interval, which included “Birches,” and New Hampshire, which earned Frost his first Pulitzer Prize.

While Frost rose to fame simultaneously with the Modernist movement, his poems do not neatly align with that particular school and instead operated within the bounds of many 19th-century poetic techniques, like blank verse. Despite this, his poetry was still distinct and new, offering a new poetic voice closely aligned with a particular place—his beloved New England—and colloquial in its mannerisms.

Over the next decades, Frost’s popularity swelled, earning increasingly popular recognition among American Audiences, and two further Pulitzer Prizes. In 1961, he read a poem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and he earned a United States Congressional Gold Medal for his contribution to the country’s culture and philosophy.

Frost taught at several institutions, including Amherst College, where the main library is dedicated to him, the Bread Loaf School at Middlebury College, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. While Frost never completed a college degree, he was awarded over 40 honorary degrees, from institutions like Dartmouth, Princeton, and Oxford. He died in Boston, in January of 1963.

Poem Text

Then 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.

Frost, Robert. “Birches.” 1915. Poetry Foundation.


“Birches” begins with a speaker viewing a line of birch trees that “bend to left and right” (Line 1) in contrast with a set of “straighter darker trees” (Line 2) adjacent to them. This image sets him on a path of reverie, as he describes how he “like[s] to think some boy’s been swinging them” (Line 3). He notes that this is unlikely the case, however, because swinging a birch does not permanently bend the tree; ice-storms are the more likely culprit.

The speaker proceeds to describe in intricate detail how an ice-storm impacts the birch trees. He suggests that the reader must also have experienced this, seeing birches the day after a rainstorm, “[l]oaded with ice on a sunny winter morning” (Line 6). He describes the sound the iced-over birches make when the wind blows on them, clicking and shifting in the light, “[a]s the stir cracks and crazes their enamel” (Line 9). As the sun continues to rise and melt the ice, the speaker describes how the birches “shed crystal shells / shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust” (Lines 10-11). The shattering and melting of the ice is dramatic and loud, producing “heaps of broken glass” (Line 12) such that it appears “the inner dome of heaven had fallen” (Line 13).

The speaker notes that after the birches shed all of their ice, while they have not broken, now that they have been bent for so long, “they never right themselves” (Line 16). He says that for years to come, they will remain arched in the woods, and he compares their bent forms to girls drying their hair out in the sun.

At this moment, the speaker becomes aware of his reverie and says that he actually intended to talk about the swinger of birches, the boy he initially brought up in the third line of the poem. The speaker says he would prefer to think of a boy like this as a reason for the birches’ bent form; he imagines a boy who lives in the country with no other children, who only makes his own fun. The speaker imagines how this boy would play by going out to the birches and “riding them down over and over again / Until he took the stiffness out of them, / And not one but hung limp” (Lines 29-31). In the speaker’s imagination, this boy perfects his technique, learning how to slide down the tree but not launching too soon, and thus not bringing the tree all the way to the ground. The speaker imagines the boy as careful in his approach, climbing to the top branches “[w]ith the same pains you use to fill a cup / Up to the brim, and even above the brim” (Lines 37-38), and from there flinging himself out and down to the ground.

The speaker turns inward at this point, admitting, “So was I once myself a swinger of birches. / And so I dream of going back to be,” (Lines 41-42), suggesting that the boy he has been describing up until this point is likely a memory or representation of his own childhood. He turns philosophical, noting that when faced with the considerations and dilemmas of his current life, which he likens to a “pathless wood” (Line 44), he wishes he could “get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over” (Lines 48-49). However, he does not want anyone to misunderstand him and think that he wishes to die. He says that “Earth’s the right place for love” (Line 52), and he describes how he’d like to climb a birch tree “[t]oward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again” (Line 56-57). The speaker sees value in “both coming and going back” (Line 58) and notes, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches” (Line 59).

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