I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. 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.

Robert Frost,
Excerpt from ‘Birches’, 1915

Yesterday was bright and dry so pulled out ‘Every Day Nature’ (Andy Beer, ISBN 978-1-911657-09-5) to 25 November. The entry is for Silver Birch; it mentions Gustav Klimt and that Birch is a coloniser tree. Well, that is one of the few trees that I can recognise so off I set and sure enough, one was soon spotted. Look at that Buddliea, still with blossoms, in the foreground

A first reading of the Frost poem failed to make much impact; the Internet spade came out and a different voyage of discovery commenced. Various online sources want readers to believe that the poem refers to Frost’s reminisences of swinging on trees in his rural youth. This is easily disproved – he was born in San Franscisco and moved when he was eleven to Lawrence, Massachusetts – both of these places were cities, even then. If an analysis is based upon a fallacy this cannot be the whole story.

Placing this in context, being written near London, England during 1915 when WWI wasn’t over by Christmas begins to cast a glimmer over the poem and sharpens the impact. Could he be attempting to find something to compare with the shell fire in the trenches? Then again, how was this American living in England? Wiki seems to have lots of gaps in his biog but the few concrete facts it supplies include when his family moved to his grandfather’s in Lawrence, in 1885, his grandfather was an overseer in a textile mill. Time passes, then in 1912 there is the very significant and brutal Bread and Roses strikes – that has its own page in wiki – involving the textile mills workers. This is the year Frost came to England. There is nothing to suggest any connection but certainly coincidental.

Frost seems to be saying that he would like to believe that the trees are shaped by innocence and joy, but he knows this is untrue, that the force driving the shape shifting metamorphosis is brutal, freezing conditions. Once a metaphor for people is identified, it does become harder to see them as simply trees again, especially in the next few lines when external forces keeps them “… bowed So low for long, they never right themselves”.

Seen from that perspective, this becomes, for me, profoundly moving. A feeling that lingers like the ice waiting for the sun to shatter it into crystals, gone but still marked. That is powerful writing. I wonder if he knew they were coloniser trees?

On the other hand, turning away from the discomfort between the belief you want to believe and acknowledging the cold truth of reality that Frost placed before us, Klimt, better known for his gold leaf paintings, made 3 paintings of Birch Trees that I could locate online; 2 of these are autumnal but my preference is this one >>>

Hmm, what would a psychologist make of that!


One response to “Birches”

  1. I feel it is an impossible task to look back and grasp the mind of a poet when he wrote his lines, a futile venture, and feel it is better to read the poem several times, on several occasions, and see what thoughts the poem evokes in yourself. The poet put it out there without explanation; we may or may not understand what was in his mind while writing but we certainly can find what is in our own minds while reading – most of the time!


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