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Ignorance is Bliss

“Birches,” like all of Frost’s poems, is a complex piece of literature that works on several levels. There is, of course, the first level, which consists of seeing the story Frost depicts of a narrator observing trees wishing that it was a tree-climbing boy who had bent the branches instead of nature’s forces. This is the version the casual observer sees, and it is a version which is satisfactory all on its own thanks to Frost’s use of beautiful images of falling ice, arching birch trees, and childhood memories. There is also the metaphorical level, where one interprets Frost’s storytelling to have a greater meaning by searching for symbols and allusions. It is not a coincidence that most of the most vivid images from the first level can be interpreted as symbols on the second level. Frost’s metrical devices and word choice also add layers to “Birches.” When one analyzes how all the layers fit together, he can see that a pattern emerges. With close, thorough observation of the nitpicky details, one can discover the bigger picture.

The narrator’s overall message is somewhat dismal. He believes the world is cruel place. Everyone experiences hardships that squash their innocence. Those hardships force the realization that the truth is oftentimes not pleasant. Furthermore, it is better to be a child, isolated from the harsh truths of the world by a wall of innocence and inexperience.

The poem begins with the narrator observing birch trees in the woods. The thin white birches bent by ice storms contrasted starkly from “the lines of straighter darker trees” (2) which are thicker and can resist being damaged during harsh weather. The narrator laments that the birches could not have been bent permanently by boys swinging on them. He understands the truth that small children can only cause trees to bend temporarily, but in his mind he still wishes that the trees’ demise could have been caused by some carefree error of a youth than a more somber case of terrible weather.

He describes the leaning birches, giving his readers a mental image of birches’ branches waving in the wind and tapping each other. The trees change color from the frigid winter rain and crack from the impact of the whipping branches. As the day progresses, the sun warms the trees, causing the accumulated ice to fall and shatter to the ground below like broken glass.

The narrator then goes into more detail about a hypothetical boy who could be causing these trees to bend. The boy seems isolated from society; he doesn’t know baseball and seems to have no friends since his “only play was what he found himself” (26). He saw the birch trees as a challenge and climbed and rocked on them all “Until he took the stiffness out of them,/And not one but hung limp, not one was left/For him to conquer” (30-32).

The poem concludes as the narrator reminisces of his younger years when he would swing on birches and adds that he would like to resume the pastime. He feels this way most when his life “is too much like a pathless wood” (44) when a stick scrapes his eye.

The narrator would like to step out of his life and restart it after some time. Again he reasserts that he would like to be able to climb the tree until he is so high that the tree bends down and sets him back on the ground, an experience that would be pleasurable both on the climb up and on the ride down.

The bending birches represent human innocence. White is a color that often symbolizes purity and innocence. Just as people become less innocent as they grow older and have more negative experiences, the birches depicted in Frost’s poem changed from being white once ice showered down.

In addition, the poem’s birches represent human frailty. The birches have such small girth that they are easily bent by the occasional dismal weather, just as people can be let down when fate deals them a blow in the form of death in the family, heartbreak, failure in the workplace, or any other tragedy. When the truth is too difficult to bear, people often give up just as the birches do, casting their faces down much like how birches’ tops tip down.

This point about the dismal nature of truth is also illustrated when the narrator transitions from one part of the poem to another: “But I was going to say when Truth broke in/With all her matter-of-fact about the ice storm” (21-22). The narrator is disillusioned with the truth, angry at how it broke in and pointed out the fact that it was, indeed, an ice storm that caused the destruction of the birches and not a curious boy.

The birches change from a pure white to other colors when cold winter breezes make its branches whip itself: “As the breeze rises, and turn many colored/As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel” (8-9). This is yet another example of how the text shows the loss of innocence.

The lines of straighter, darker trees symbolize mockery. If a white, leaning birch is an innocent learning the harshness of reality, the dark, straight trees represent indifferent people who enjoy poking fun at the misfortunes of others who are vulnerable. The darkness of the straight trees indicates that they are cruel whereas the light color of the birches indicates their innocence. The trees’ straightness indicates that they do not face the same adversities of the leaning birch trees.

The narrator wistfully pictures a hypothetical boy who represents perfect innocence. The boy lives on a farm and knows so few people that he does not know common boys’ games like baseball. For him, play is whatever he finds to do outside. Through the use of the boy’s story, the narrator indicates that he would like to return to a simpler time when he was unaware of how merciless the outside world can be.

The narrator’s current life disappoints him. When he contemplates on his situation, he realizes his life is like a pathless wood, which conveys several ideas. A life compared to a pathless wood is meaningless. With no path there is no destination and no return point. Without some sort of direction, life is without any accomplishments and is meaningless. What is the purpose of a living wasted, meaningless life?

This pathless wood of a life harmed the narrator: “And one eye is weeping/From a twig’s having lashed across it open” (46-47). The cut he received is an event in his life that taught him not to trust the cruel world in which he lived. Perhaps someone close to him betrayed his trust, or perhaps a member of his family died from a terminal illness and he was powerless to prevent the death that came all too early. Whatever the case, the narrator has been hurt enough to say that he would like to start his life over, but only after leaving the world for awhile. One cannot be sure if the narrator is implying reincarnation or if he wishes to be transported supernaturally to a different realm to be brought back to Earth later.

The narrator would like to be the boy again. The perfect life for him is to live a simple life unaffected by the truth. All would be right in the narrator’s world if he could just cut the stress out of his life by forgetting the hard lessons he had to learn with each hardship. He desires the simple, innocent pleasure of climbing birches.

Frost also uses the meter of “Birches” as a tool to tell his story. One recurring theme in his meter is the pattern of a trochaic foot followed by an iambic foot. Written out, this syllable pattern of stress, not stress, not stress, stress, looks like a tree branch that is weighed down in the middle but rises up in the end. The meter of the poem helps one visualize a tree weighed down by ice, which is symbolism for a person upset with an event in his life.

 Frost This “bending branch” meter is apparent in several places, including the first four words of the poem’s first line, “When I see birches.” The emphasis is on “When” and “birch.” Frost’s establishment of this pattern at the very beginning of the poem brings attention to it.

Another notable usage of this is on line 5: “Ice-storms do that.” By hyphenating “Ice-storms,” Frost ensures that only “Ice” receives the emphasis. Usually “that” is not an emphasized word, but it is in this case because it ends a sentence in the middle of a line and receives a heavier emphasis than “do.”

The final usage is appropriately on the final line. “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches” (59). The bending theme actually appears twice in the same line, in “One could do worse” and “swinger of birches”. The stresses are on “one,” “worse,” “swing,” and “birch.” Reusing the trochee/iamb pattern in the final line of the poem gives this literary work a sense of coming full-circle, ending the poem how it began with the simultaneously tragic and hopeful symbol of the birches; tragic because it represents hardships and life lessons learned the hard way, but hopeful because the narrator hopes to begin his life anew.

Word choice is another layer Frost uses in the poem. Reading Frost’s language aloud is like having a deep conversation with a dear friend. He uses both first person and second person, just like someone would when telling a story.

From the first line, “When I see birches bend to left and right,” Frost establishes that there is a narrator speaking to the reader in a monologue. The use of first person gives the reader the idea he should picture a narrator who is a grown man, most likely past his prime, who has seen better days and wants most of all to regain his childhood. This is because the use of “I” makes the whole poem more personal and more intimate, and it legitimizes the poem’s sentiments more than if it were told from a distance by an omniscient and indifferent source.

More evidence that this poem is to be seen as a sort of monologue is Frost’s use of second person in the lines “Often you must have seen them” (5) and “You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen” (13). Rhetoricians discourage the use of second person in essays because it makes the writing more informal and casual, but this is exactly why Frost uses it. 

In addition, Frost’s use of simple language invites people of all levels of education to read “Birches.” Three-syllable words and four-syllable words are a rarity in this poem, and there are only one or two two-syllable words in most lines. If a poem’s theme is truly universal, it seems only appropriate that it be written so everyone can read it. Everyone can appreciate this poem because it is about coming to terms with the adversities all humans face at some time in their lives.

This is not to say that Frost’s poem itself is simple. On the contrary, it is very complex, rich with several layers that must all be analyzed for hours to fully understand. Yet any high school graduate can understand its vocabulary, which makes “Birches” accessible to nearly everyone.  Thus, Frost can bring readers in with the simple language and then keep them thinking with the complex layers.

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