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Birches” is a memorable poem that is rich and interesting enough to repay more than one reading. Robert Frost provides vivid images of birches in order to oppose life’s harsh realities with the human actions of the imagination. I recommend this poem to anyone interested in reading and studying poetry that meets many requirements for excellence. However, it can not be understood from a quick once-over in a classroom. Its meaning can only be revealed by reading it over and over in a quiet setting.
“Birches” has a profound theme and its sounds, rhythm, form, tone, and figures of speech emphasize this meaning. Theme “Birches” provides an interesting aspect of imagination to oppose reality. Initially, reality is pictured as birches bending and cracking from the load of ice after a freezing rain. 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: Reality has its ups and downs. This passage suggests that people never fully recover from being dragged down by life even if they don’t seem broken.
Imagination is portrayed as “a swinger of birches.” The portrayal of the boy refines this image: One by one he subdued his father’s trees By riding them down over and over again. The boy seems to take in lessons about life from these encounters with the trees on his father’s land: He learned all there was To learn about not launching out too soon. This boy lives away from town and must play by himself. He has learned his father’s lessons. Imagination is the gift for escaping reality that each one of us possesses. We do not have to depend on anyone to take a mental vacation. Mastering your art of imagination will increase your ability to handle the bad things life dishes out. That’s why the narrator advocates using imagination. On Earth we can become weary from life’s everyday occurrences–that “pathless wood.” However, Earth’s the place for love–not hate, weariness, or any negative feelings. Therefore, use imagination to come back to reality relaxed. At the end, the narrator imagines climbing the birch tree “Toward heaven”–to the top and swinging a branch down to the ground. Suddenly he sounds relaxed and carefree. Isn’t this better than the villain “Truth”? It sounds like imagination works.
Sound Often you must have seen them Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning After a rain. This passage begins the visual journey through the woods. In this journey, Frost wants the reader to see the birches as they really are and as they seem in a series of pleasant images. Part of the realism comes from the sound of passages like this one: 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 avalaching on the snow crust– Frost’s alliteration–here the repetition of /z/ and /s/ and /k/ sounds–lets us hear as well as see the birch trees after a freezing rain and the morning after as the melting begins. The /k/ sound in “crack” and “crazes” mimics the sound of the ice in the breeze “shattering” and crashing “on the snow crust.” It also imitates the crunch of snow under the weight of boots. The /s/ and /z/ sounds suggest the rising breeze–his use of /s/ sounds increases as it rises. These sounds also suggest the scratch and swish of birch branches scraped on the crust.
Perhaps they also imitate the swish of layers of warm garments rubbing together as you walk. These sounds contribute to the tone, or attitude, concerning “Truth,” or reality. The upheaval caused by the breeze and the sun’s warmth portray a shattered, uncomfortable feeling. Life is full its peaceful ups; however, it also consists of shattering downs. CONSIDERATIONS OF CRAFT Rhythm and Form “Birches” consists mainly of blank verse: unrimed iambic pentameter, as in the lines below. …………./………../…………../…………/…………../ When I see birches bend to left and right ……../……………/…………../……………/…………./ Across the lines of straighter darker trees, However, Frost deviates from this pattern to emphasize certain lines that give clues to the theme. Lines 3, 5, 23, and 30 each contain the word “them,” meaning the birches. Lines 14 and 15 rime and also deviate from the pattern of iambic pentameter: ……………………./……………………/…………../…………./…………/ They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load …………../………/…………………/…………………../……………………../ And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed The meaning reflected in the lines scanned above plus the next line: “So low for long, they never right themselves:” add up to dramatize what life’s “downs” will do to a person. Lines 42, 50, and 54 contain the rimes be, me, and tree, which emphasize that the narrator wishes to be in his imagination, that he identifies with the imaginary boy who was “a swinger of birches
Tone The poem communicates an attitude about imagination and reality. The choice of certain words and certain details makes it clear that the speaker prefers imagination but is aware of reality. Initially, the forest scene describes “crystal shells/ Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust–/ Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away.” The words “shattering and avalanching” give the feeling of calamity and perhaps fear or sorrow. A disturbance in the universe is suggested by the “heaps of broken glass” that make it seem as if “the inner dome of heaven had fallen.” Since Truth is linked to the ice storm, the speaker sees that the reality is that ice storms have bent down the birches. There is a turning point that informs the reader that the villain “Truth” has butted into the poem. The speaker, who was getting whimsical and nostalgic about girls drying their long hair “in the sun,” admits that “Truth broke in/ With all her matter-of-fact about the ice storm.” But now it’s imagination’s turn.
The speaker’s huffiness about truth pushes reality aside for the more refreshing view of imagination. The comforting image of the boy who “one by one . . . subdued his father’s trees” pits art against the destructive chaos of reality. The boy refines his art of imagination by persistence– And not one but hung limp, not one was left For him to conquer. He learned all there was To learn . . . . This scene is softer than the scene of the ice storms in lines 5 – 15. But the point of this opposition between imagination and reality, the boy vs. the ice storm, doesn’t come until years later at the end of the poem. The frustration of life sometimes makes it “too much like a pathless wood.” After disclosing that he himself has been “a swinger of birches” the speaker confesses that he yearns to return to those days in his imagination to get away from the frustrations, the shatterings of real life. The last line, “One could do worse than to be a swinger of birches,” sounds relaxed, thoughtful, resolved. After having taken a mental vacation into the forest, the narrator comes back to reality refreshed, ready for love and ready to face reality again. Isn’t this one purpose of all art–paintings, movies, literature, sculpture, music–to refresh us by drawing on our imaginations so that we can use our dreams or our memories to survive day-to-day, matter-of-fact reality? “Birches” is no ode to winter; it is more a tribute to the power of imagination. Frost uses several figures of speech to stress certain points and add freshness to the poem. For instance, Frost gives human qualities to “Truth” in the personification about interrupting. This striking personification alerts the reader that “Truth,” or reality, is a major part of the theme for this poem.
Similes heighten both sides of the contrast between truth/reality and imagination/memory. The nostalgic image of “girls on their hands and knees that throw their hair/ Before them over their heads to dry in the sun” begins with the simile-signal “like.” When describing life “like a pathless wood,” Frost uses imagination to depict reality. So imagination even subdues or overcomes reality. The last line, “One could do worse than to be a swinger of birches,” understates the theme. If imagination can be equated with art, the last line may suggest that one could end up in a worse life pursuit than being an artist, or a poet. Major Assets “Birches” is a memorable poem. It is lengthy and complicated enough to give the reader something to discover every time it is read. In the poem, Frost uses several tools of the poetic craft to depict the theme. “Birches,” written in generally unrimed iambic pentameter, includes rimes and variations in rhythm that stress major points of the theme. “Birches” also contains several figures of speech and vivid language to depict reality and the power of the imagination. A good poem should stir the reader and touch the emotions. This poem advocates using the imagination to deal with life’s downs. In today’s harsh, hectic world, this message definitely hits home.
Major Drawbacks One major drawback of “Birches” is that the reader must be careful not to take the wording literally, at face value. “So was I once myself a swinger of birches” does not necessarily mean that the narrator used to hang off of trees like Snoopy, and the statement “And so I dream of going back to be” does not necessarily mean that the speaker wants to climb a birch tree. The important word is “dream.” It’s our dreams that steel us against the branches of reality that lash across our open eyes. The poem must be reread again and again to see what the narrator is referring to by taking each statement in the context of surrounding lines and the larger context of the whole poem. The narrator has been imaginative, has subdued reality with the power of the dream, and so he wishes to again. Another example lies in the line “One by one he subdued his father’s trees.” We know the ice storms bent the trees, that the boy did not conquer his father’s forest. Instead the reader must reread to find that with imagination the boy is able to subdue life’s downside, perhaps overcoming the setbacks that his father endured and may now afflict the speaker, who dreams of using imagination to overcome difficult times. It is also hard for a first-year college student to get past the pretty nature poetry. I could picture a winter scene: “As the breeze rises” and the effect of “the sun’s warmth” on the sheaths of ice covering the tree branches. But this is where I ended the scene. I did not picture the shattering of ice “on the snow crust” like “heaps of broken glass to sweep away.” Initially, I did not get the shattered feeling; I felt the scene was peaceful.
I enjoyed reading “Birches,” and I believe my reaction is both personal and aesthetic. This poem was lengthy and complex enough to contain many of the aesthetics of an excellent poem. I will always remember the vivid images provided by Frost’s use of figures of speech and sound. This poem also stirred my feelings. I work in a very high-pressure business environment and sometimes I escape by daydreaming. I long for the day when I have my own business. I believe my reaction is not typical of first-year students; most would be “put off” by this poem’s length and complexity. Many, however, would look at this poem as a possible wealth of information or as a manual for defending oneself against the onrush of reality
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