Birches. Collection – Mountain Interval. 1920.

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-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
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
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.

Birches was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in August 1915. It was later included in the volume Mountain Interval.

Reflection, memories, nostalgia and thoughts make up this superbly philosophical poem. Like Mowing, this poem too ‘begins in delight and ends in wisdom’.

At a primary level, Birches is a pastoral poem studded with beautiful images of country life. At a higher level, it divulges a profound philosophy about life.

Birches are a common sight in New England. Of the sixty-line poem – the first forty four lines can be read like a brilliant description of a boy’s play. ‘A boy too far from town to play baseball’ has mastered the art of swinging on the birches. The graphic description of swinging on the birches arouses heartfelt joy in the activity and added to it is the poet’s own nostalgia of his boyhood days.

Poem of contrasts

It’s a poem of contrasts, like life itself – a world within us and one outside, earth and heaven, escape and responsibility, control and abandon. We are constantly seeking balance, grappling with contradictions.

The contrast in the poem begins in the first line. Pale, swinging birches as against ‘straighter’, ‘darker’ trees. It’s a ‘sunny winter morning’, there is ice and there is sunlight.

There is conflict also in mind. RF longs to stay poetical (Now am I free to be poetical?) and flow with imagination. Twice, he repeats,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

and

I should prefer to have some boy bend them.

But almost like an intruder, truth dawns:

…Truth broke in

With all her matter-of-fact about the ice storm.

Further, when tired of life’s ‘consideration’ he longs to escape but not for long.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

For, he says,

… Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

The point he’s making here is that we may seek escape from life’s responsibilities but only temporarily. We have to come back to it all – the love for life which inspires ‘duty’. Much like his famous poem Stopping by Wood on a Snowy Evening where says,

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

He knows that escape is momentary. In A Servant to Servants (North of Boston. 1915) he says: …the best way out is always through.

Imagery

Two beautiful images that are often quoted occur in this poem, one, of the birch branches,

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.

 

And that of arching tree-trunks, like girls drying their hair:

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.
Philosophical thoughts

A joyous boyhood activity gradually draws him into philosophical thoughts.

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

 

When the going gets too tough, like a swinger of birches, he dreams of escaping from the earth to heaven. But only for a while, he’s quick to add. A strong believer in the goodness of all things in life, he clarifies,

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.

 

For,

Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

 

The poem reminds me of William Wordsworth’s, To The Skylark,

Type of the wise, who sore, but never roam—
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home!

 

The climbing also suggests the value of learning and experience.

… He learned all there was
To learn…

 

Climbing or rising above the ground also signifies rising above the banal. ‘Toward Heaven’ also suggests longing for spirituality.

The poem ends with his supreme belief in living an enlightened but practical life. To attain spirituality through hard work, learning, experience and expertise; and then continue to live life in the light of that consciousness.

Oft-quoted lines
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.
Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
Word meanings

Crazes – In ceramics – fine cracks in the glaze of pottery
Bracken – Coarse, large fern
Withered bracken – Here, the undergrowth around the birches.



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