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The Responsibilities Of Adulthood In Robert Frost's - With A Free Essay Review
Katie Lacy; Grabill; English 102; 27 March 2012
In his poem, “Birches,” Robert Frost uses imagery of birch trees to portray complicated emotions pertaining to life. Although “Birches” is not separated into different stanzas, a reader can easily distinguish three distinct “sections” in the poem – a section describing the trees, a section about the life of a young boy, and a section about the narrator’s longing to be a child again. Each of these sections contributes to the sense of yearning for childhood that Frost weaves throughout the piece. “Birches” is not simply a story about a young boy playing in the tress, but a piece of poetry that conveys the emotional difficulties associated with growing up and facing the responsibilities and hardships of adulthood.
When Frost describes the trees in the first section of the poem, the birches are symbolic of his life. When he “see[s] birches bend to left and right / Across the lines of straighter darker trees” (962), Frost is saying that his life isn’t steady; it is constantly swinging back and forth. He would like to think that the reason the trees are bending is because “some boy’s been swinging them / But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay / As ice-storms do” (962). When a boy is swinging in birch trees, the trees bend for a moment, but then quickly bounce back up. In wishing that that bending in the trees was the result of a boy playing, Frost is wishing that the trees representing his life would quickly and easily spring back up instead of being weighed down by ice-storms. These ice-storms represent the hard times that you encounter when you enter adulthood; the ice is weighing the birch trees down, just as difficulties in life weigh upon a person.
These hard times and responsibilities form a shell around a person’s mind, just as the ice forms shells around the branches of the birches. This shell builds as more responsibilities are added to a person’s life, as the tree encounters more ice storms. A tree can be rid of these shells though, on a sunny winter day –
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 (962).
Just as warm sunlight can get rid of the layer of ice on the trees, a warm friend or a happy event can remove the stressful shell around a person’s life. In comparing the ice to “heaps of broken glass” Frost creates a negative image at first, but he then compares the fallen ice to “the inner dome of heaven,” showing the reader that when a person gets rid of the barrier they have built around themselves, it really is a beautiful event.
Sometimes, though, the sunshine doesn’t come and, since birch trees are so flexible,
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 (962).
This “load” is referring to the great amounts of ice continually piling onto the branches, or the continual difficulties of adulthood building into a great weight sitting on the person’s mind. This load will weigh a person down, almost to their breaking point and, just like the trees, that person won’t be able to spring back from their troubled times. The responsibilities of adulthood never completely go away; a person will stay bowed down by them forever.
Frost, though, would rather have his life weighed down by childhood problems, than by everlasting adult responsibilities, because it is easy to spring back up from childhood problems. In this second section of the poem, the birch trees represent the problems of a child, and the young boy is, presumably, a young Frost. The boy in the poem
One by one…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 (963).
If we assume that the trees represent childhood worries and problems, we can then conclude that Frost is saying that as a child, you can easily conquer all of your problems, and you feel like you have your whole life under control. Essentially, he is saying that childhood is easy and the problems encountered there are so minor that they are simple to overcome; life as a child is carefree. This boy “always kept his poise / To the top branches, climbing carefully” (963). This is symbolizing that children are fearless, that they can make their way to the height of their problems and bring them down, without a care at all.
Finally, in the last section of the poem, Frost unifies the first two sections into one meaning: he wishes to be a child again. In saying, “So was I once myself a swinger of birches. / And so I dream of going back to be.” (963), Frost is telling the reader that he used to be a carefree child, and he yearns to be one once again. He doesn’t always want to go back to childhood, though, just
When [he’s] weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open (963).
This “pathless wood” symbolizes wandering, being lost, and not having anywhere to go. So, when “life is…like a pathless wood,” Frost is stuck in his life, not knowing what to do with it. The cobwebs and twigs are metaphors for the hard times in life that slow you down and make you want to stop trying to find your way. When his life is full of these hardships and wanderings are the times that Frost finds himself longing to go back to childhood where life was easy.
Frost knows that Earth is a wondrous place and despite the hardships he faces, he would like to stay on this Earth forever. He says that he would
…like to get away from earth for 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 get better (963).
In this, Frost is saying that, though he would like to start life over as a child again, he never wants to be taken away from Earth. As he says, Earth is a place where you can find love, and that is one thing that makes life as an adult astonishing. Frost also writes that
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 (963).
This represents the cycle that he wishes his life could take. The tree again symbolizes his life, and he would like to continue in his life all the way until the end but, instead of reaching heaven, he would rather have his life dip back down and start over again as a child. Even though he wishes for childhood at times, Frost still wants to experience his whole life on Earth, and then perhaps start another life again.
Ultimately, “Birches” is a poem that puts into words the feelings that many of us experience as we are growing up. Frost’s use of metaphors turns a complex emotional journey into a story filled with the imagery of nature, while the iambic pentameter keeps the poem flowing. Though on the outside the poem tells of birch trees and childhood games, “Birches” fundamentally tells of the struggles that are experienced when growing up and having to face the responsibilities of adulthood.
Frost, Robert. “Birches.” Literature and Its Writers: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Eds. Ann Charters and Samuel Charters. 5th Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. 962-963.
Let's start with your thesis, then, which I take to be the final sentence of the first paragraph. You say the poem "conveys the emotional difficulties associated with growing up and facing the responsibilities and hardships of adulthood." That seems a little vague to me, and perhaps also untrue. It is vague because you don't identify or specify what the poem has to say about "emotional difficulties." That would not be a big problem for a thesis if the essay later did identify those difficulties and clarify what the poem says about them, but the essay doesn't quite do that. I'm not surprised by that fact, however, because I don't think "Birches" does convey much about emotional difficulties, and I don't think it says much either about the "responsibilities" of adulthood, though it does suggest something about its hardships. (Actually, the poet mentions "considerations," which I suppose could be taken as a rough synonym for "responsibilities," but your essay doesn't explicitly make that connection.) If I'm right about the thesis, and about the poem, then that means the first claim you make in the essay (the first sentence) is also untrue. I'm inclined to think it's untrue perhaps only because I lack the poetic faculty needed to see how "imagery of birch trees" can "portray complicated emotions." The problem with the essay for me is that it doesn't really help me overcome this lack by explaining how the imagery portrays complicated emotions.
The essay does of course make claims about the symbolic significance of the birches. You begin your analysis by saying that the birches that "bend to left and right" signify that the poet's "life isn't steady." That doesn't help me understand very much, however, because I don't really know what you mean by an unsteady life "swinging back and forth." That claim, in any case, is inclined to make me think that the poem is more about complicated motions than complicated emotions (which, as it happens, I think is closer to the truth!). You introduce some additional complicated motions when you speak of the poet's "wishing that the trees representing his life would quickly and easily spring back up." The problem with this second paragraph so far, then, is that you are interpreting the figurative language of the poem with your own figurative language. You replace one bit of text (the poem) that needs interpretation with another bit of text (your essay) that needs interpretation. That's not fair! The last part of the second paragraph is better, because while you don't explain the figure of "weighing" (since you use it for both sides of your analogy), you do explain the significance of the ice. It signifies, for you, difficulties.
It does make sense to see the impact of the ice on the trees as analogous to the impact of life on the poet. One reason that analogy is justified is that the poet goes on to relate, after his reverie about the boy bending birches, his sense of the difficulty of life. You don't explicit justify your analogy in that way, but note that if the poem did not contain lines about the difficulty of life (the stuff about cobwebs and twigs), then it would be hard to justify seeing the story about the impact of the ice on the birches as anything other a story about the impact of the ice on the birches. Generally, it's good practice to justify your interpretation so that your reader will have a reason to prefer your claim about the significance of images over anyone else's different claim.
You claim next that the hard times "form a shell around a person's mind, just as the ice forms shells around the branches of the birches." Note that here again you explain the image that you want to interpret (ice shells) with the same language and another image ("shell around a ... mind"). This is probably the least clear claim in your essay, and again puts the real burden of interpretation onto your reader. What exactly is a mind shell? A little further you claim that the poet "compares the fallen ice to 'the inner dome of heaven.'" That claim is important to your interpretation: the poem for you, at this point, is about "the beautiful event" of "[getting] rid of the barrier." Again, your language is figurative. How should your reader interpret this "barrier"? But the interpretation, whatever its precise significance, is problematic in the first place because the poet doesn't actually compare the fallen ice to "the inner dome of heaven;" he says rather that the scene is liable to make you "think the inner dome of heaven had fallen." You might believe all the same that the collapse of heaven's inner dome, whatever that is, would be a beautiful event, but I'm not sure the poem gives you ground for supposing that this collapse figures the happy destruction of the minds shell (whatever that is!). Moreover, while you make a distinction between the event of the ice breaking off the trees (which has for you its analogue in the breaking of the mind shell) and an alternative outcome, when "the sunshine doesn't come," the poem itself doesn't clearly present two alternative scenarios ("sometimes" is your word, not the poem's).
When you move on the next "section" of the poem, you claim the poet "would rather have his life weighed down by childhood problems." The poem doesn't really emphasize, as far as I can tell, the "problems of a child," however unchallenging those problems may be assumed to be. The poet doesn't so much say that he would rather have his life weighed down by childhood problem as he would rather have the tree bent by a child. That's an odd thing to say, of course, and it's difficult to know exactly what Frost is getting at. You are right of course to say that the poet is expressing a preference here; that's a crucial point. But he seems to be saying that he wishes he could interpret the trees differently from the way he is forced to interpret them by the intrusion of what he calls "Truth." I think you might be able to get a little more purchase on the meaning of the poem if you think about this opposition between what is true (a matter of fact) and what is wished for; or if you think a little more about the structure of the poem, rather than focusing on a somewhat speculative interpretation of imagery. That said, I think you've got the basic idea of the poem right. It's not just, as perhaps you were initially suggesting, about longing for childhood again, but it is, as you go on to clarify, a certain kind of affirmation of earthly existence despite its pains.
Your way of paraphrasing this affirmation, however, is a little bit confusing. You say that the poet "would like to stay on this earth forever" just before citing the poet's desire "to get away from earth for awhile." One misunderstanding of that line would be the willful one the poet hopes to avoid; the one that sees him "snatch[ed] away / Not to return." But it must also be a misunderstanding to say that he "never wants to be taken away" when he explicitly says that he would like "to get away." It sounds to me like the poor guy wants a break, which is to say, he wants to die.
You conclude by returning to the point of your thesis: "Frost's use of metaphors turns a complex emotional journey into a story filled with the imagery of nature" (that sentence would be better if it stopped there; the point about iambic pentameter seems gratuitous, and in any case is untrue: some lines are iambic pentameter, but many are not, and the "flow" of the poem is frequently, deliberately interrupted). Let me emphasize again that your essay doesn't really demonstrate the truth of that statement. In fact, you don't really discuss emotions at all (and I think you are right not to get too much into it). But if the poem is not about a complex emotional journey, what is it about? Well your essay does answer that question, if not in the most explicitly foregrounded way: it's an affirmation of earthly life despite its hardships, an explicit rejection of a celestial afterlife, and of no afterlife (i.e., of nothing). If you want to talk about emotions, you could, I suppose, ask whether this is a happy affirmation. To answer that question you probably need to consider, again, the opposition between truth and desire in the poem, between the true significance of the tree, and the preferred explanation of its motions. The poem after all is also about death. Is there a true, boring, "matter of fact" meaning of death that the poet is evading with his wish for living life over again? Is there such a thing as being a swinger of birches? What would Truth have to say about that, if it hadn't been abandoned, more or less, after the first section of the poem?