Birches : Theme of Imagination Vs. the Real World

          Birches :  Themes  

           Imagination Vs. the Real World

    The most important theme of the poem ‘Birches’ is the  “imagination vs. Reality”. In this poem Frost used his poetic imagination to surpass the limits of the real world. The poem lets the readers to swing back and forth between reality and imagination. The speaker rejects the real cause for the birches to have been bent over in favour of his own fanciful imagination. 

          The key action described in the poem consists of swinging, free of the constraints of the earth, up towards heaven and then landing on the ground again. Thus, the speaker takes the  reader through a series of swings back and forth between earthbound realities and imaginative possibilities. 

    At some level, Frost claims that the act of his imagination expresses a larger  ” truth”. Going up on the birch symbolises the higher world of human ideals, the human desire to withdraw from harsh realities of life into the happy world of imagination. But on the other hand, he makes it clear that one must remain within the natural world and that complete escape into the world of imagination is not possible and not desirable. It is this tension within the poem that makes each world both appealing and painful. The real world might be a place of pain, but it is also the place for love. The imaginary world is innocent, but it is solitary and loveless.

   The poem opens on an observed phenomenon. On seeing the branches of birches bent down  Frost imagines that some boy might have been swinging them resulting in their bending down.

 “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.”

       In the next few lines, the poem swings back towards reality. The poet observes the dismal images of an ice – storm that made the birches bend and never  “right themselves”. The poet seems to be inspired more by his power of imagination than the reality.

     In the next section of the poem, which mainly concerned with the actual ” Truth” about the bending of birches, the fervour of Frost’s observations leads him into wild imagination that the birches got bent by the boys swinging on them. 

   He imagines the ice crystals scattered around the trees as 

    “the inner dome of heaven had fallen”. 

        The next line signals the beginning  of a retreat from reality – 

 ” They are dragged to the withered bracken by the                       load”

      The birches are bent down under the weight of ice and snow until they reach the dried up ferns and shrubs on the ground. The speaker says that though the trees  “seem not to break” but can  “never right themselves”. This means that when the trees are bent down  for quite a long time, they cannot straighten out afterwards and are in a sense of  broken. 

      Again, the speaker’s imagination rises and he has used a simile, comparing the bowed birch trees to girls sitting on their hands and knees hanging down their hair in front of them to dry them in the sun. 

   ” Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

   Before them over their head to dry in the sun”.

       Frost then gives a mythical account of how the birches were bent by a boy. The boy  “subdued” all his father’s birches into bent – over arches until  “not one was left / For him to conquer”.

       In doing so the boy has to carefully reach the top of each tree. It is suggestive of the method required to reach to a realm beyond the real. Here the boy’s action in climbing the trees is parallel to the poet’s act of creating the poem. 

    The boy’s conquest of the trees mirrors the victory of poet’s imagination over the real world, for now his vision has completely replaced the ice -storm as the cause of the trees condition. 

    Now Frost  swings back to reality in the fourth section through the surprising revelation that he was once himself 

” a swinger of birches “.

     In  the first four sections of the poem, the poet seems to be largely concerned with dramatising the conflict between the harsh limitations of reality and attractive possibilities of play and imagination.

   This clearly indicates the poet’s longing for his childhood days, which is quite contrast with the pain of adult world.  Frost imagines his adulthood as a ” pathless wood “. The boy can conquer the world with his imaginary world but the speaker cannot do the same. 

      The images of the last ten lines, however present a surprising and harmonious synthesis of the two extremes. 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 birch means accepting the reality as it is and doing all earthly duties. 

    The poet says – 

  ” I’d like to get away from earth awhile

     And then come back to it and begin over”

    Frost states that he does not want complete escape from the earth,into an imaginary world. He  wants to come back to earth because the earth is  “the right place for love”. Instead, he imagines the milder pleasures of gradually climbing up the tree,  ” Toward heaven”  and of the gentle descent as the tree would place him down on the ground. 

      The poet suggests that one must attain a balance between his earthly duties on earth and his spiritual aspirations because both are desirable. Only then can one lead a happy, balanced life. 

      In this way Frost imagines a birch swinging experience that  “would be good both going and coming back”. 

     Without the conflict between imaginative flight and earthly reality that seemed to prevail earlier in the poem. In fact, it is the real world that makes it possible for the poet to have his fantasies.


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