Part – 1
(a) According to Frost, a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom. Discuss the statement with close reference to this poem ‘Birches’.
Answer : Frost thinks that a poem imbibes an experience which provides delight to us in the beginning. As we dwell on the experience in all earnestness we begin to find in that experience some kind of wisdom.
‘Birches’ embodies such an experience. On seeing bent-up branches of birches he is reminded of his childhood. He clearly remembers how the birches remain bent down for long with the weight of ice which covers them after a snowstorm. When the sun shines, the ice melts, cracks and shines like the pieces of the broken glass. As the wind blows, the birches swing up and down. The poet also remembers with delight how the rural boys would resort to birch swinging. They learnt the art of going up and down in a poised manner.
Striking a personal note the poet vividly recalls how he was a birch-swinger as a boy. He would climb the top branches very carefully. Then he would fling himself forward with his feet stretched. Then he would come gently to the ground.
This delightful experience now ends in a wisdom for the poet when he is no longer a boy. He says that he still wants to swing on a birch. He wants to play the game to forget the troubles of his life in the town. But he wants this enjoyment for some time. He has to come down to the earth to do this earthly duties which cannot be neglected.
The swinging of birches is not a boyhood game now when the poet is a mature man. It makes him wise about maintaining a balance between the real world and the world of imagination, between fact and fancy and between reality and imagination. As a birch swinger he knows that he cannot remain up for ever (in the ideal world of imagination). He can only escape from harsh realities of the world for some time. He has to come back to the earth (the real world) and do this earthly duty. We need to remember : ‘Earth’s the right place for love’.
(b) Justify the title of the poem ‘Birches’.
Answer : A poem which is symbolic takes us beyond the literal meaning of words. Frost’s poems make extensive use of symbols. But it is important how he uses his symbols. On the surface level , his poems can be enjoyed without going deeper into the symbolic import of objects and symbols. But close reading of his poems provides us a keen insight into deeper meanings.
‘Birches’ is a symbolic poem. In the beginning we are made familiar with birches and their peculiar quality of going up and down. Then as the poem progresses we come to feel that birches in the poem have symbolic import. The upward movement of birches symbolises higher ideals and spiritual aspirations, whereas their downward movement symbolises coming back to earth, that is, reality.
‘Heaven’ comes to symbolise the perfect world, whereas ‘Earth’ comes to represent the world of harsh reality. When the poet refers to the necessity of going up on a birch, it becomes symbolic of escape from the harsh realities. When he refers to the coming back on earth, it becomes symbolic of our duty to face the harsh realities of our world and do our earthly duty. Thus the very structure of the poem is symbolic.
Part – 2
(a) How does the poet present nature in his poem ‘Birches’?
Answer : ‘Birches’ by Frost is basically a nature-poem. It describes natural phenomenon vividly and skillfully. Frost uses concrete images to depict nature in a way that they come to become acquire symbolic import as the poem advances.
At first, nature is a source of delight to the poet. The poet sees the bent-down branches of birches. He remembers that branches of birches remain bent down for long, not by their swinging by the boys, but with the weight of the ice. When it stops raining birches are covered with ice. On a sunny winter morning the ice on these branches begins to shine and reflect seven colours of the rainbow as the sunlight passes through the ice. As the warmth of the sun increases, the ice is shaken and is cracked. It falls on the earth with a cracking sound. The small pieces of ice thrown on the earth appear to be the broken glass as if the inner dome of heaven has fallen down.
The poet, in another visual image, describes how the branches of birches sometimes come down to the level of dry fern growing on the earth. They bend down much but do not get broken. Then their trunks lie bent down for a very long time. They keep their leaves trailing on the ground like the girls sitting with their hair own their heads in order to dry them in the sun. This is a brilliant , functional simile.
Nature, then, is also a source of wisdom for the poet. The poet recalls how as a boy he would swing birches. Now as an adult he has the longing to swing birches again. But now he is a mature, wise person. He has learnt the importance of maintaining balance between reality and imagination. He knows the wisdom of escaping from the harsh realities of the world for some time for rejuvenation, and then the wisdom of coming back on the earth to do his earthly duties. Birches go up and then come down. This natural phenomenon is the source of wisdom that extremes are always bad. We cannot remain up for ever in the world of fancy, we will have to come down to the real world, however bad and harsh it is.
(b) How does the poet strike a personal note in the poem?
Answer : In the poem ‘Birches’ Frost remains impersonal as he depicts the natural phenomenon of swinging of birches. He minutely portrays how birches go up and down , what happens to them in snow-storm and how they remain bent-down for years when they are burdened for long.
Then he recalls his boyhood days when he used to climb birches. He learnt to climb the top branches. He learnt not to come down with the branch swiftly to the earth. He learnt the required pose to climb the top branch carefully. Then he would fling himself forward with his feet stretched and come down gently to touch the ground again.
Now when he is adult, he again feels the desire to birch swinging again, especially when he is tired of idle thinking. He would like to be lifted up with some branch of a birch so that he may temporarily escape from the harsh realities of his world. But then he would desire to be back on the earth again so that he may do this earthly duties.
Thus, the poet strikes a personal note in an otherwise impersonal poem.
(c) Write a note on the use of imagery in the poem.
Answer : ‘Birches’ appeals to us because of the use of rich imagery in it. Most of the visual images used in the poem are made up of description. For example, when it stops raining the branches of birches are covered with ice. On a sunny winter morning the ice on these branches begins to shine and reflect seven colours of the rainbow as the sunlight passes through the ice. As the warmth of the sun increases, the ice is shaken and is cracked. It falls on the earth with a cracking sound. The small pieces of ice thrown on the earth appear to be pieces of broken glass as if the inner dome of heaven has fallen down. Then there are images which come to life through metaphors and similes. In line 44, for example , life is metaphorically compared to ‘pathless wood’, and confusions in life of ‘cobwebs’ (line 45) . Trailing of leaves by trees trunks has been compared to the way the girls throw their hair ‘before them over their heads to dry in the sun’, in a beautiful simile.
Kinesthetic (sensations of movement) images also abound in the poem; as ,
- ……… one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
- After a rain. They click upon themselves
- Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish.
The last two images above are also auditory in nature.
Question 1 : How does Robert Frost use the central metaphor of birches in his poem ‘Birches’? Discuss with close reference to the text.
Answer : Birches are trees whose branches are quite flexible and can bend down and go up easily. They are common sight in New England. As a boy, Frost has minutely observed these trees, and like many other rural boys, have got the chance to do birch-swinging. Sometimes the branches of birches remain bent down for long with the weight of ice which covers them after a snowstorm. When the wind blows, the birches swing up and down. In the sunlight the ice cracks and shines. The whole scene is beautifully depicted by the poet.
………..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.
In a beautiful image the poet depicts the scene of fallen pieces of ice as the warmth of the sun increases. The pieces of shining ice resemble pieces of broken glass as if the inner dome of heaven had been broken into pieces and the earth is covered with heaps of broken glass.
The poet recalls how as a boy he would climb the top branches of birches very carefully. Then he would fling himself forward with his feet stretched. He would come gently to the ground and then would go up.
This going up and down on birches becomes, in fact, a metaphor for escaping from reality into a fanciful world and back. This becomes clear when the poet says:
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and being over.
He makes as assertive statement : ‘Earth’s the right place for love’. An escape from harsh realities symbolised by ‘going up in birch’ is desirable. It also indicates entering into a world of higher, spiritual ideals. But one can never escape from one’s duties on earth. So one has to ‘come down’ (symbolised by the downward movement of the birch).
In this way, Frost uses the central metaphor of birches to give this views on the contraries of reality and fancy, earth and heaven, fact and fancy etc.
Question 2 : ‘Birches’ is a complex poem. Discuss and illustrate.
Answer : Like many other poems of Robert Frost, ‘Birches’ seems to be a simple poem. There is nothing very complex or ambiguous about it on the surface. However, a close reading of the poem reveals that it is a complex poem and can be read at several levels.
The poem opens in an easy colloquial style and gives the description of a very common, familiar scene – the swinging up and down of flexible birches – forest trees in New England. We learn how the rural boys resort to birch-swinging as their pastime in the woods. They climb the branches and go up to swoop down with a swish. They learn the art of going up and down in a poised manner. The poet himself was a birch-swinger as a boy. He still has the longing to swing on a birch. He wants to enjoy the game to forget the troubles of his life in the town, but he wants this enjoyment only for sometime. He has to come down to do his earthly duties which cannot be neglected. Despite this episodic simplicity, the poem is rich and deep in meaning. As the poem progresses, there is a gradual development of thought at the metaphorical level. The upward and downward movements of birches are symbolically significant. The upward climb is suggestive of man’s desire to rise above the common and the mundane. It signifies higher ideals and aspirations. The downward climb is suggestive of man’s desire to be rooted to the earth. It binds him to the reality from which he cannot escape for long. Thus in the downward and upward movements of birches, we find a remarkable balance between fact and fancy, reality and imagination, earth and heaven.
Frost habitually brings the opposites together in his poem. As a modern poet, he remains contented in face of opposites in life. The ideal world and the actual world are different. Frost accepts the necessity of both. This is apparent when he says:
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and being over.
As a birch-swinger he knows that one cannot remain up forever. He does not want that his wish is half-granted. He is aware , like other epic poets, that gods often grant half-wishes, thus creating more trouble for the man. So he prays:
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return.
Man must keep a balance between his work on earth and his spiritual aspirations. It is good to escape from harsh realities of the world for sometime. It is not desirable to have no ideals and aspirations, because no progress is possible without them. But it is also not advisable to forget earthly duties. In our desire for a perfect world (‘heaven’) we should remember:
Earth’s the right place for love.
In short, ‘Birches’ makes us aware of many contraries in our life and impinges upon us to strive to have a balance among them to lead a happy, posed life.
Question 3 : What are birches? How are they described in the poem ‘Birches’ by Frost? In what way does the birches become symbolic in the poem?
Answer : Birches are forest trees and are a common sight in New England. The flexible branches of the trees swing up and down. The rural boys resort to birch-swinging as their pastime in the woods.
The poem opens on an observed phenomenon. On seeing the branches of birches bent down he imagines that some boy might have been swinging them resulting in their bending down. This happens many a times. But the reality dawns upon the poet that birches cannot be bent down permanently by swinging. Actually, the branches are bent down by the ice-storms.
The poet, then describes how the branches bend down with the load of the ice that covers them after a snowstorm. When the wind blows, birches swing up and down with the clicking sound. The ice on the branches shines and turns into many coloured as the rays of the sun are refracted in passing through it. Soon the warmth of the sun increases and the ice on the branches is shaken and breaks down to fall into small pieces. The poet uses a beautiful visual image to describe the scene:
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.
Sometimes birches are bent down so much and for so long that they are not in a position to straighten themselves. Their trunks lie arched in the forest for several years. They keep their leaves trailing on the ground like the girls sitting on their hands and knees, spreading their hair over their heads to dry in the sun.
It becomes clear soon that Frost uses birches as a central metaphor for the main theme of the poem. Going up in the air while birch-swinging is suggestive of escaping from harsh realities of the world into the world of fancy, human ideals and aspirations. Coming down on the earth with the birch means accepting the reality as it is and doing all earthly duties. In the poet’s opinion, going up and coming down, as in birch-swinging, are both desirable. One must attain a balance between his work on earth and his spiritual aspirations. Only then can one lead a happy, balanced life. This is the massage that Frost wants to convey through ‘Birches’.