An Anatomy of Frost's 'Birches' | Teen Ink

An Anatomy of Frost's 'Birches'

August 15, 2021
By Rroossee BRONZE, Burdwan, Other
Rroossee BRONZE, Burdwan, Other
4 articles 2 photos 2 comments

Robert Lee Frost, the Poet Laureate of Vermont,USA, was one of the pioneering American poets of the war-stricken twentieth century who was much admired during his lifetime for his command of American colloquial language and his realistic verses depicting the rural life of New England. His lively writings feature complex social, philosophical and psychoanalytic motifs that transcend time.His poetry is both traditional as well as experimental and regional as well as universal. He was honoured with the Pulitzer Award four times in his lifetime. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, The Road Not Taken, Mending Wall , Nothing Gold Can Stay,Birches, Fire and Ice, etc fall within the periphery of his far-renowned, immortal creations. The poem ‘Birches’, originally titled as ‘Swinging Birches’, was initially published in the Atlantic Malady in 1915 and later collected in Frost’s third collection of poetry, the Mountain Interval that was published in 1916. The poem consists of fifty-nine lines of blank verse in iambic pentameter written in a continuous form without any stanza breaks. Its single , unified stanzaic forms emphasises the narrative and reflective quality engrained in the poem. “Birches”, composed with a particular emphasis on ‘sound of sense’, is invested with the leitmotif of the sheer discordance between the realistic present and idealistic past of the poet’s life; between the limitations as well as the lack experienced in his present and the primordial plentitude and harmony experienced in his past; and between the Lacanian Symbolic Order and the Imaginary Order.   

The poet presents the image of the ‘birches’ as a symbol of threshold and transition, a symbol which is both, grounded in reality and visible corporeality by its grappling roots as well in contiguity with the firmament ,i.e, the symbolic representation of imagination and freedom, through its physical and emblematic apex, the latter dimension (,i.e,the dimension of the apex)whereof is emphasised by Frost in his specific choice of the birch trees for portraiture in his poem which traces its symbolic roles of apotray and protection to Celtic folklore, a far-distant,ancient, diminished, primitive and polytheistic culture from the perspective of a Western Christian poet and thus, subsequently, stimulating myth and fantasy in his poetic mind.  With an effective employment of contrast between the imagery of bending birches in antagonism with “straighter darker trees’(line: ii) in the very inception of the poem, he perpetuates this dual representative dimensions of the ‘birches’ in the poem in distinguishing them from the limited and merely terrestrial emblems embodied by the “straighter darker trees”. 

In this poem, the poet engenders a conflict between the painful, harsh, inescapable reality and the lovely , limitless realm of poetic imagination in a dramatised manner and this very theme permeates every inch of the poem acting as leitwortstil in it. The words “like to think” in the line “I like to think some boy's been swinging them.”(line:iii) demonstrates the poet’s desire for the non-factual, imaginative interpretations of the seemingly materialistic beings as opposed to the factual reality, the latter whereof is observed in these lines “But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay/As ice-storms do...”(lines: iv-v). Although the poem marks the realisation of pulchritude residing  in this corporeal world of terrestrialism, it is disrupted by a sense of ephemerality and loss. Such is explicit in the poet’s rich illustration of the imagery of “ice-storms'' enveloping and bending the birches in a “sunny winter morning/After a rain” and gently stroking themselves along the gentle motion of the breeze yet the breeze’s causation of the stroking onomatopoeic sensation, evinced by the words “click upon”(line:vii), to the birches or their assumption of variegated hues is only transitory as it is essentially brought about by a subversive process negating the apparently affirmative “breeze” causing the “stir” that “cracks and crazes'',literally in an alliterative mode(the ‘c’ sounds), the “enamel” of the birches and denigrating the ecosystem-sustaining solar energy, “the sun’s warmth” as the natural principle shedding “crystal shells/Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust”. Such notions of transitoriness and destructive imagery are further emphasised by metaphorising the snowy “crystal shells'' lying underneath the birches as the “heaps of broken glass”, broken glasses being a symbol of chaos, disharmony and disquietude. It is Frost’s metaphor depiction of the chaotic and disharmonic atmosphere of reality and human life itself.  The disintegrity of the scene is intensified by the disruption of the “inner dome of heaven”,i.e, the Biblical firmament delineating people’s loss of faith in the supernatural and skepticism in the modernist era in favour of conforming to the standards of unemotional scientific reality of the world. Furthermore, the drooping condition of the  birches is the manifested representative reinforcing  this very same theme of disadvantaging(or bowing down) of imagination before the coarse mundaniasm and realism. Although the birches, the imaginary realms, are “dragged” to the “withered bracken”, the latter being a symbol of the abrasive and sorrowful reality, they “seem not to break”, i,e, are not completely subverted to the tougher power of reality. The poet’s analogy between the bowed birches with their leaves trailing on the ground and “girls on hands and knees” throwing “their hair/Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” might seem quite unusual and even, eccentric at a cursory glance but it unfurls the poet’s anthropomorphisation of the birches bestowing them a outlook of prosopopeia which further reinvigorates the poet’s association of them with phantasmas and emotional reflexes and his departure from their biological, dehumanised nature.

 Frost’s notion of transitory pulchritudinous, futile and absonant reality is sustained throughout these picturesque lines by his consistent employment of abrogating words such as “ice-storms’, ‘cracks’, ‘crazes’, ‘snow-crust’, ‘shed’, ‘shattering’ , ‘avalanching’ , ‘heaps of broken glass’, ‘dragged’, ‘withered’, ‘load’ , ‘break’ and ‘bowed’. Furthermore, the poet’s blatant aversion to actuality and truth and subsequently, an obsessive desire to resort to  and reside in the realm of imagination which has been consistently expressed throughout the twenty initial lines is finally manifested in these lines, expressed in these lines:  

“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”(lines: xxi-xxiii)

The poet’s employment of the words, “prefer to have” mirrors the word “like” in the third line of the poem and expresses the extent of overwhelmingness of such desire. It also heralds the poet’s renunciation of the factful reality presented by Truth whose personification of Truth in a feminine gender,the use of the phrasal verb “broke in” signifying a forceful entrance and its augmentation by the enjambment across the lines facilitating the momentum of its irrepressible flow attach an intrusive attribute to it disrupting the poet’s deep imaginary cogitation(of a boy swinging the birches) and thus, ultimately intensifying his psychological rejection of realism and practicalism.

 The poem’s psychic situation can be verily elucidated from the literary theories of Jacques Lacan, the great French psychoanalytic of the twentieth century. According to Lacan’s theories, Frost’s resistance towards the cold and harsh reality of the words exhibits his resistance towards the Symbolic Order which , by definition, strictly controls and orders human lives. Frost’s glum and negative imagery of the snow-filled birches and the prosopopeia of his Truth embody the Symbolic Order, the Order of loss, lack and deprivation which is thus inherently sorrowful due to the presence of rules, restrictions, and ideological principles. Frost pours out such sorrows and unfulliments present in the Symbolic Order very effectively through these lines overflowing in enjambment, though quiet oddly except the initial line:

“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.”(lines:xliii-xlvii)

 The only resort to which Frost recourses is the Lacanian Imaginary Order, the order of human’s preverbal union and fulfillment simultaneously existing alongside the Symbolic Order yet only in the backyard of consciousness asserting only occasional influences on humans instead of being in complete control of it, whereby the poet’s nostalgia is stimulated and the action in the imagistic scene of the figment of the boy, to whom the poet traces almost a sensory, visual and tactile connection in his unique poetic vision, entirely operates at the platform of this Imaginary Order with the boy  representing the poet’s Ideal-Ego in alienation. The poet’s residence in the Imaginary Order, the Order which according to Lacan, is experienced only through so-called misinterpretations, misperceptions and irrationality,  metonymically manifested through the boy is further reinforced by the poet’s explicit abnegation of the Symbolic Order in spite of his sound realisation of the absence of truthfulness and concrete factuality of his imaginations, thus redounding to the irrationalities of the Imaginary Order, as verily evident from the words, “prefer”(line:xxiii)and “like”(line:xlviii) which have been already cited above.  Therefore, the poet psychically resides in what Lcan terms as the ‘Imaginary Order’ departing from the societal “Symbolic Order’.      


The poem assumes an overt autobiographical and nostalgic tone in forty-first and forty-second lines “So was I once myself a swinger of birches./And so I dream of going back to be”. These lines are clearly analeptic in so much as these operate in summing up its preceding lines from the twenty-fourth line to the fortieth line, inducing a retrospective reading of these lines which reconnects the poet to his childhood, whereby he finds himself recollecting his boyhood memories , bewailing its loss being haunted by a feeling of its unfulliable lack at the present moment.  The indefinite “some boy” in the poem ulteriorly acts as a metonymic image of the poet in his childhood. The following lines project the poet’s desire for recoiling into a secluded, self-oriented, introverted,rustic place of repose and a reversion to nature’s lap.

“Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.”(lines:xxv-xxvii)

Here, the phrase, “too far from town” indicates the young lad’s retention of the inborn innocence and simplicity being uncorrupted by life and in a retrospective glance from the above forty-first and fort-second lines, it mourns the poet’s loss of it in his present life from the hour of his knowledge of the “baseball”, the poetic metaphor for the play of complexities and excruciations of life. The scenic image of the boy’s climb of the birches is the representative of the poet’s desire to escape this tormenting mundane reality,which incessantly pricks him with the realisation and memories of his loss. The young boy’s ultimate victory in his conquest of  ascension of the birches symbolises the poet’s success in transcending the narrow limits of reality and unleashing a realm of amplitude and repletion. Such notion is reinvigorated by Frost’s dainty metaphor of filling a cup upto and above the brim, the cup symbolising the unpleasant palpable world and the brim symbolising its parochial limits, for demonstrating the painstaking ascent of the young lad to the pinnacle of the birches.    

“.....................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.”(lines:xxxv-xxxviii)

Hence, in transcending the visible realms of this dolorous reality, the poet also transcends his feeling of scarcity since the latter, by definition, is subsumed into the vortex of the former and such is enhanced in these lines through the employment of enjambment invigorating the sensation of ceaseless continuity of the experience of the deficiency. Although it is not possible for the poet to be reconciled with his childhood image, his childhood perhaps being  his principal loss, he transcends it(i.e,his scarcity)and experiences a new found realm of union and limitlessness.  The lack which continuously haunts the poet and his indomitable desire for reconciliation with it,that partially contributed to the ruthlessness of the reality experienced by him, is expressed in his erection of the boy as its metonymic image, conforms to the Lacanian concept of objet petit a, the lost object or cause of desire, the tropic metonymic representation of the mythic totality of being objectified by the Other.  For Frost, his childhood connotes his objet petit a since through its memories, he experiences a regression to the innocence and solitary pleasures of his early youth but it always eludes its promise of a feeling of union and completion. Such infinite evasion is caused due to its escape of signification in a semiotic system; it is reminiscent of a realm, an algebraic concept, named ‘The Real’ “which resists symbolization absolutely”. It is in antagonism with the Imaginary Order and is beyond the reach of the Symbolic Order. It is the primordial principle, the undifferentiated, authentic, always overflowing, ceaseless and self-contained which is irreducible to meaning and psychoanalysis indeed. It is this Real to which Frost desires to escape in order to transcend his present scarcity and loss,the objet petit a because it is where the totality of being reigns. Frost’s attempt to escape the realms of both consciousness as well unconsciousness in order to be united with the transcendental is evidenced by his apophatic attitude unto the precise symbolisation of the place of his escapade. It is due to the fact that the poet merely states, “I'd like to get away from earth awhile”(line:xlviii) in which though fleeing from the “earth” unquestionably indicates transcendentalism presupposing the impossibility of his allusion to death based on the evidence of fiftieth to fifty second lines (l-lii) , no attempt has been made either to symbolise or to designate a definite name to the desired place, which thus, dovetails the key proposition of the Real, i.e, it resists symbolisation,it is nameless. However, Frost’s union with the Real is only theoretical and a mere product of his misperception and phantasma since such union is unattainable.  


Drawing towards the end of the poem, the poet is marked by a sudden metamorphosis in Frost’s attitude towards the binary oppositions hitherto sustaining his poem and presently, he atrophies the melancholic mood of the poem in ascertaining that it is not the irrevocable death that he seeks but a mere momentary escape into the world of perfection and flawlessness in order to relieve his foreboding pains and restart the engine of his life on earth. Intriguingly, in the fiftieth line, Frost pictures the personification of ‘fate’ through his attribution of the anthropomorphised characteristics of supernatural capabilities of misunderstanding, half-granting and snatching away in similitude with that of the ancient anthropomorphic gods to it, even without the capitalisation of ‘F’(in the word “fate) unlike the capitalised ‘T’ in personified ‘Truth’ in twenty-first line. He attempts to reconcile the leitwortstil, the recurring motifs, of binary oppositions of the nonchalant reality of the palpable world with the blissful state of imagination through the all-pervasive concept of ‘love’ for which Frost finds the Earth as the only “right place”. His ultimate motto of such rapprochement is reinvigorated by juxtaposition of antithetical ideas in a harmonic tone in these lines, “And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk”(line:lv) and “That would be good both going and coming back.” (line:lviii). The employment of the word “good” in respect of antithetical and contradictory cases in the penultimate line evinces the harmonic tone underpinning the poet’s words unto the end of the poem. The poet achieves the skyscraping climax in the final line of the poem, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”(line:lix) by wisely realising the ineluctable necessity of residing within the limits of the earth or the Lacanian Symbolic Order despite one’s occasional recoiling into the Lacanian Imaginary Order of bliss and abundance, as it is precisely where the elixir of life, love dwells. The word “swinger” is employed in metaphorical sense to designate one’s oscillation between the Symbolic and the Imaginary Order and the word ‘worse’ hints the other dire possibilities of perpetual escape from the former, i.e, via death, succumbing to the former’s ideologies, beliefs and restrictions by not making an attempt to visit the latter or by completely dwelling in the realm of the latter which consequences in insanity.  

Therefore, through this beauteous piece of poetry, the poet engenders the sharp distinctions between the cold reality and the blissful imagination, a realm of limit and limitlessness, yet in the end, realising the necessity of this limits in life, he chooses to reside in the reality, despite occasional regressions to the imaginary realm and hence, successfully reconciles the two opposing , superficially irreconcilable entities.   

Besides the ulterior purport of the poem, there lies the morphological structure of the poem resting on the fulcrum of what Frost termed as the “sound of sense”. It is Frost’s own ingenious concept that he claims to produce a musical effect in his poetry. In playing his abstract concepts of ‘sound of sense’, Frost consistently sustains a tender effect of assonance and consonance disseminated throughout the poem. The assonating sounds such as the ‘i’ sound in the line “I like to think some boy's been swinging them." “Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning” etc; ‘e’ sound in the line , “When I see birches bend to left and right” etc; ‘a’ in the phrase “Shattering and avalanching”, in the line, “From a twig's having lashed across it open.” etc; ‘o’ in “So was I once myself a swinger of birches.”, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”etc; and countless others act as a catalyser in accelerating the interior and invisible cadence of the poem that in turn enhances its mellifluousness when read aloud. The consonating sounds such as the sibilance fostered by the ‘s’ sound in the line “As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.”etc; “h” in “They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,” etc; “r” and ‘t’ in the line “Across the lines of straighter darker trees,”etc; produces a therapeutic effect on the reader when read clamourously through its interplay of patterns and textures of sounds oftimes creating a unique blend of consonantal sounds, which is patently achieved in this especially through its luxurious legatos.  The alliterative words and phrases such as “Soon the sun's,shed crystal shells their trunks,birches bend, boy's been,’ etc generate an emphatic effect on certain words and it ,thus, conveys the readers the poem’s ulterior purport by patently evincing the words that the poet desired to accentuate. Furthermore, here, it assists in suggesting the mood of the poem which, for instance, is made overt by the repetitive ‘s’ sounds engendering a sibilitating cadence that in turn suggests the introspective and nostalgic mood of the poem through its more intrinsic and tender tones. Besides, the hyperbolic verses of the poem such as “Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells/Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust.” and “With the same pains you use to fill a cup /Up to the brim, and even above the brim.”lends an exaggerating , superabundant voice to these specific aspects of it. In addition, the evocative and impressive imageries employed in this poem have produced a profoundly descriptive though somewhat melodramatic scenery where a particular image or a chain of images serve a specific purpose, especially for evoking a desired emotion within the reader such as a sense of transience, negation and melancholy in the imagery of the snow-covered birches and the implications of the beams of the sun on them, and for highlighting significant emotional moments in the poem such as for highlighting the poet’s retrospective and nostalgic emotions in the imagery of the young boy fetching the cows and performing the then common rural sport of swinging the birches all alone. Moreover, By portraying variegated analogies of a few definitive depictions to the readers in lines such as “ Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground/Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair” and “And life is too much like a pathless wood”,similes not only illuminates and diversifies the response of the readers to some intricate nooks of poetry but also generates a psychological effect on their minds enhancing their perception and comprehension of certain alleys of it. Besides, the anaphoric use of the word “As” in these consecutive lines, “As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored/As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.”functions as an emphasis denominator and a bestower and catalyst of artistic effects in the poem. Therefore, through the effective employment of all these dainty literary devices, Frost is able to manifest and achieve his desired impact of the “sound of sense” in the poem through the effective employment of all these dainty literary devices,the blank verse and in his words, through the “harmonised vowels and consonants…..summoned by the audial imagination” . 

The author's comments:

Hello, everyone. This is Sreeja, here. In this article, I have attempted to present an intriguing psychoanalysis of Robert Frost's 'Birches' on the lines Lacan, which I hope would be both entertaining and engaging. This article also encapsulates a general interpretation of the poem as well as an anatatomy of the literary devices employed which assist in bringing out Frost's famous 'sound of sense' based upon which , the poem was composed.  

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