“…Die now, in this love… die now, and do not fear this death, for you will come forth from this earth and seize the heavens.”- Rumi
The child of William Prescott Frost Jr. and Isabelle Frost, Robert was born in 1874 in San Fransisco.(Frostfriends.org) His mother “was a spiritual woman, who read to her children from the Bible and Scottish legend.”(Frostfriends.org) Robert Frost wrote his first poems while a student at Lawrence High School, and in 1913 published A Boy’s Will.(English.illinois.edu) His third work “Mountain Interval, which appeared in November 1916, offered readers some of his finest poems, such as ‘Birches’”.(English.illinois.edu) “Birches” followed the format of a Greek ode, with a strophe (introduction of talking points), antistrophe (development of aforesaid talking points), and epode (a conclusion commenting on those talking points). Greek odes were a serious, stately, and elegant treatment of a subject (normally athletic achievement), and lends itself well to the topic Frost is dealing with. Fond of deep philosophical thinking and posing questions about the ‘eternal verities’, it is little wonder that he would use the somber format of a Greek ode for this particular poem. In the following lines we will look at the development of “Birches” (i.e. the talking points and final comments), as well as explore some of the meanings behind the poem in the context of the Greek ode.
To proceed, we find that the poem opens up with a description of birch trees bent “to left and right.”(line 1) This image of bowed deciduous hardwood trees, “associated with the Tírna nÓg, the land of the dead and the Sidhe, in Gaelic folklore, and as such frequently appear[ring] in Scottish, Irish, and English folksongs and ballads in association with death, or fairies, or returning from the grave,”(Facts) is juxtaposed by the description of a nameless mass of “straighter darker trees”(line 2) hovering, almost ominously, in the background.
This mixture of contrasting images is developed throughout the poem and continues as the poet begins wistfully describing how he envisions a boy “swinging them”(line 3) as the cause for their bent forms, and refutes this notion in the next lines by stating “But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay./ Ice-storms do that.”(lines 4-5) That is, despite the romantic notion that this is just the boisterous fun of children, something more serious is at work on the trees. As he draws the strophe to a close, he utilizes ironic imagery: “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.”(lines 18-20) This incongruity between youthful males and females frolicking and the pale, bent forms of what must certainly be old trees, an apt metaphor for the elderly, as well as the vagaries of life as signified by the ice-storm is developed throughout the poem. The themes of death, life, tribulations, youth, and old age seem to be the main topics he is developing as his ‘talking points’.
The theme of youth and old age persists in the antistrophe. But here youth’s benign, if a bit dangerous, amusements are depicted as lessons, a form of learning at the hands of the wizened birch tree. The notion that the tree is symbolic of an erudite teacher is added, while Truth (death) continues to hover in the background. Frost speaks of youth gaining experience from his carefree play, “conquer[ing]”(line 32) and “subdu[ing]”(line 28) these stately trees, while detailing in a jubilant manner the glee with which this same youth “flung outward, feet first, with a swish”(line 39) Interestingly, the joyous state of the boy in this daydream, if you will, is shaped in spite of the truth. As the Arab poet has said: ladū lil mawt wabnū lil kharāb “beget for death and build […] for ruin” (Google Books) The ice-storm (reality, the vagaries of life, or death) has worn these trees, and us, down. He, and we, would prefer the wear and tear to be caused by the playing of boys, but “Truth broke in/ with all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm”(lines 21-22) Reality, it would seem, cannot be covered up so easily no matter how much tamannī (fanciful wishing) is done. Life collects a tax from us all.
This idea that life is finite, and riddled with both joys and sorrows, is something an old poet stated while lamenting the fall of al-Andalus. An old poet possessing the agnomen, Abū Ṣāliḥ/Abū al-Baqā (d. 1285), writes: Fa jāicu al-dahru anwācun munawwacatun wa liz zamāni musarrātun wa aḥzānu (The misfortunes of time are of varied types/ Time possesses happinesses and sorrows).(Fiqh ul Islam) In the epode, Robert Frost openly states that he was “once […] a swinger of birches,”(line 41) but the vigor of youth has departed, replaced, as he says, by a desire “to get away from earth for a while.”(line 48) Why is this so? The preceding lines list the reasons. He tells us he is “weary”(line 43) then draws a metaphor for his state in an individual whose “one eye is weeping/ From a twig’s having lashed across it open,”(lines 46-47) and whose “face burns and tickles.”(line 45) He states that “life is too much”. Despite this, he does not wish for death, that great destroyer of opportunity. He would like to climb birches until he was near heaven and “the tree could bear no more.”
For a poet fond of deep philosophical musings, the format of the Greek odes, especially the Pindaric which is ”generally more tranquil and contemplative than the Pindaric ode,” lends itself well to the serious contemplation of mortality. (Poets.org) Within the lines of “Birches”, in particular the epode, Frost vividly depicts the vagaries of life, contrasting youthful energy and fearlessness with the sorrows of old age when navigating the forest has become a chore, and giving up seems like a very good idea. However, he adds that there is something that makes life worthwhile, that smooths over the weariness, and is a soothing balm to the burning face. What is this cure for the sojourner through this world? Love. For “Earth’s the right place for love,”(line 52) Here, it does not seem to refer to eros, philia, or storge, due to the references to heaven, and thus, I believe, Frost speaks of love for the Creator. This is the balm, though for some the realization only comes in later years.
Facts, Birch. ‘Birch Facts |’. Birchcream.ie. N.p., 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.
Fiqh ul Islam. ‘Ar-Randi’S Elegy’. N.p., 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.
Frostfriends.org. ‘Places And Poetry’. N.p., 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.
English.illinois.edu. ‘Frost’s Life And Career–By William H. Pritchard And Stanley Burnshaw’. N.p., 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.
Google Books,. ‘ʻabbasid Studies’. N.p., 2015. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.
Poets.org. ‘Poetic Form: Ode | Academy Of American Poets’. N.p., 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.