“Birches” by Robert Frost is one of my favorite poems, and a perfect poem for this moment…

“Birches” is a beautiful midwinter poem, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot, especially this pandemic winter, when I’ve been longing for some escape.

In the poem, the speaker sees birch trees bent by a winter storm and imagines that they were bent, instead, by a boy swinging on them. Frost spends some time slowly describing the scene and his own imagination of the scene. His imagination takes him from midwinter and middle age to another season of life that is more full of energy and enthusiasm, and he imagines the boy–a younger version of himself— playing.

We may get weary of life and want to escape, may feel like life’s path is too difficult:

“life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.”

We may wish to get away from it all. I know I sometimes do, and this pandemic winter, I sometimes feel that desire more strongly.

But my favorite part of the poem is when Frost clarifies what he means by getting away from earth for a while:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I think “Birches” is also one of the most beautiful environmental poems: “Earth’s the right place for love./ I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

It’s not easy to be a human, and the earth and human experiences don’t always feel hospitable. But there is no place else for us to go. And all the love that has ever occurred in the universe has occurred right here on this imperfect, but beautiful, earth.

Here is the full poem. And I’ve included some writing prompts to work with below the poem:

Birches by Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
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.
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:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
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.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Writing Prompts

birches in winter

I suggest, as always, that you try one of my guided meditation recordings before writing.

  • If you could get away for a while, how would you go? Describe it in detail.
  • Use the following six words in a piece of writing: birches, storm, snatch, flung, dome, dip
  • Write a love poem/ love letter to the earth.

As always, please leave a comment below. If you use the prompts (or write from the poem without the prompts) share your writing :)! And share this with any friends who might be interested!

 

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