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Robert Frost's "Birches" and "Putting in the Seed"

Robert Frost remains America's most noted and beloved poet. His classic works are widely anthologized and studied in the nation's schools.

Robert Frost - Library of Congress

Robert Frost - Library of Congress

Introduction and Text of "Birches"

The speaker in Robert Frost's widely anthologized "Birches" is musing on a boyhood activity that he enjoyed. As a "swinger of birches," he rode trees and felt the same euphoria that children feel who experience carnival rides such as ferris wheels or tilt-a-whirls.

The speaker also gives a rather thorough description of birch trees after an ice-storm. In addition, he makes a remarkable statement that hints at the yogic concept of reincarnation: "I'd like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over."

However, after making that striking remark, he backtracks perhaps thinking such a foolish thought might disqualify him from rational thought.

That remark however demonstrates that as human beings our deepest desires correspond to truth in ways that our culture in the Western world has plastered over through centuries of materialistic emphasis on the physical level of existence.

The soul knows the truth and once in blue moon a poet will stumble across it, even if he does not have the ability to fully recognize it.

Birches

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.
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.

Robert Frost reading "Birches"

Commentary

Robert Frost's "Birches" is one of the poet's most famous and widely anthologized poems. And similar to his famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," "Birches" is also a very tricky poem, especially for certain onanistic mind-sets.

First Movement: A View of Arching Birch Trees

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.

The speaker begins by painting a scene wherein birch trees are arching either "left or right" and contrasting their stance with "straighter darker tree." He asserts his wish that some young lad has been riding those trees to bend them that way.

Then the speaker explains that some boy swinging on those trees, however, would not bend them permanently "[a]s ice-storms do." After an ice-storm they become heavy with the ice that begins making clicking sounds. In the sunlight, they "turn many-colored" and they move until the motion "cracks and crazes their enamel."

Second Movement: Ice Sliding off Trees

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.

The sun then causes the crazy ice to slide off the trees as it "shatter[s] and avalanch[es]" on to the snow. Having fallen from the trees, the ice looks like big piles of glass, and the wind comes along and brushes the piles into the ferns growing along the road.

The ice has caused the trees to remain bent for years as they continue to "trail their leaves on the ground." Seeing the arched birches puts the speaker in mind of girls tossing their hair "over the heads to dry in the sun."

Third Movement: Off on a Tangent

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.

At this point, the speaker realizes that he has gone off on a tangent with his description of how birches get bent by ice-storms. His real purpose he wants the reader/listener to know lies in another direction.

That the speaker labels his aside about the ice-storm bending the birch tree "Truth" is somewhat bizarre. While his colorful description of the trees might be a true one, it hardly qualifies as "truth" and with a capital "T" no less.

"Truth" involves issues that relate to eternal verities, especially of a metaphysical or spiritual nature—not how ice-storms bend birch trees or any purely physical detail or activity.

The speaker's central wish in this discourse is to reminisce about this own experience of what he calls riding trees as a "swinger of birches." Thus describes the kind of boy who would have engaged in such an activity.

The boy lives so far from other people and neighbors that he must make his own entertainment; he is a farm boy whose time is primarily taken up farm work and likely some homework for school. He has little time, money, inclination for much of a social life, such as playing baseball or attending other sports games.

Of course, he live far from the nearest town. The boy is inventive, however, and discovers that swinging on birch trees is a fun activity that offers him entertainment as well as the acquisition of a skill. He had to learn to climb the tree to the exact point where he can then "launch" his ride.

The boy has to take note of the point and time to swing out so as not to bend the tree all the way to ground. After attaining just the right position on the tree and beginning the swing downward, he can then let go of the tree and fling himself "outward, feet first." And "with a swish," he can begin kicking his feet as he soars through the air and lands on the ground.

Fourth Movement: The Speaker as a Boy

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.
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.

Now the speaker reveals that he himself once engaged in the pastime of swinging on birches. That is now he knows so much about the difference it makes of a boy swinging on the trees and ice-storms for the arch of the trees.

And also that he was once a "swinger of birches" explains how he knows the details of just how some boy would negotiate the trees as he swung on them.

The speaker then reveals that he would like to revisit that birch-swinging activity. Especially when he is tired of modern-day life, running the rat-race, facing all that the adult male has to contend with in the workday world, he day-dreams about this carefree days of swinging on trees.

Fifth Movement: Getting off the Ground

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.

The speaker then asserts his wish to leave earth and come back again. Likely this speaker uses the get-away-from-earth notion to refer to the climbing the birch tree, an act that would literally get him up off the ground away from earth.

But he quickly asks that "no fate willfully misunderstand" him and snatch him away from the earth through death—he "knows" that such a snatch would not allow him to return.

The speaker then philosophizes that earth is "the right place for love" because he has no idea that there is any other place it could "go better."

So now he clarifies that he simply would like to climb back up a birch tree and swing out as he did when a boy: that way he would leave earth for the top of the tree and then return to earth after riding it down and swinging out from the tree.

Finally, he offers a summing up of the whole experience that being swinger of birches—well, "one could do worse."

Birches

Birches

Tricked by Robert Frost's "Birches"

Robert Frost claimed that his poem, "The Road Not Taken," was a very tricky poem. He was correct, but other poems written by Frost have proved to be tricky as well.

This poem is clearly and unequivocally a nostalgic piece by a speaker looking back at a boyhood pastime that he cherishes. Some readers have fashioned an interpretation of masturbatory activity from this poem.

Robert Frost's second most widely known poem, "Birches," has suffered an inaccurate interpretation that equals the inaccurate call-to-nonconformity so often foisted onto "The Road Not Taken."

At times when readers misinterpret poems, they demonstrate more about themselves than they do about the poem. They are guilty of "reading into a poem" that which is not there on the page but is, in fact, in their own minds.

Readers Tricked by "Birches"

As Robert Frost has claimed that his poem "The Road Not Taken" was a tricky poem, he likely knew that any one of his poems could possibly trick the over-interpreter or the immature, self-involved reader.

The following lines from Robert Frost’s "Birches" have been interpreted as referring to a young boy learning the pleasures of self-gratification:

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

About those lines, one such overly-physical-minded reader once claimed: "The lexical choices used to describe the boy’s activities are unmistakeably s*xual and indicate that he is discovering more than a love of nature."

Indeed, one could accurately interpret that the boy is discovering something "more than the love of nature," but what he is discovering (or has discovered actually since the poem is one of nostalgic looking back) is the spiritual pull of the soul upward toward heaven, not the downward sinking of the mind into a physical dalliance.

In the Mind of the Beholder, Not on the Page

That reader’s interpretation of s*xuality from these lines simply shows the interpretive fallacy of "reading into" a poem that which is not there, and that reader's proposition that "the boy’s activities are unmistakeably s*xual" exhausts reason or even common sense.

The "lexical choices" that have tricked this reader are, no doubt, the terms "riding," "stiffness," "hung limp," and "launching out too soon."

Thus that reader believes that Robert Frost wants his audience to envision a tall birch tree as a metaphor for the male member: at first the "tree (male member)" is "stiff (ready for employment)," and after the boy "rides them (has his way with them)," they hang "limp (are satiated)."

And from riding the birches, the boy learns to inhibit "launching out too soon (premature release)." It should be obvious that this is a ludicrous scene that borders on the obscene.

But because all of these terms refer quite specifically to the trees, not to the male genitalia or s*xual activity, and because there is nothing else in the poem to make the reader understand them to be metaphorical, the thinker who applies a s*xual interpretation is quite simply guilty of reading into the poem that which is not in the poem but quite obviously is in the thinker's mind.

Some beginning readers of poems believe that a poem always has to mean something other than what is stated.

They mistakenly think that nothing in a poem can taken literally, but everything must be a metaphor, symbol, or image that stands in place of something else. And they often strain credulity grasping at the unutterably false notion of a "hidden meaning" behind the poem.

That Unfortunate Reader Not Alone

That reader is not the only uncritical thinker to be tricked by Frost’s "Birches." Distinguished critic and professor emeritus of Brown University, George Montiero, once scribbled: "To what sort of boyhood pleasure would the adult poet like to return? Quite simply; it is the pleasure of onanism."

Such a claim is utter nonsense. The adult male remains completely capable of self-gratification; he need not engage boyhood memories to commit that act.

One is coaxed to advise Professor Monteiro and all of those who fantasize self-gratification in "Birches" to keep their minds above their waists while engaging in literary criticism and commentary.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Introduction and Text of "Putting in the Seed"

The speaker in Frost’s "Putting in the Seed" dramatizes his love for the simple act of planting seeds in the earth's rich soil and watching them grow to a plant. A fairly "tricky poem"—thus, care needs to be taken not to read into this poem what is not there and thus miss what is.

Robert Frost's "Putting in the Seed" is an Elizabethan (English or Shakespearean) sonnet. It consists of three quatrains and a couplet. The rime-scheme, however, departs somewhat from the Elizabethan. Instead of the traditional ABABCDCDEFEFGG, Frost's rime-scheme offers the following variation, ABABABABCDCDEE.

As Frost has proclaimed his poem, "The Road Not Taken," to be a "very tricky poem," the poet likely thought of this poem as one of his "tricky" poems. His judicious use of subtle imagery and words that seem to carry a double-entendre can easily lead the gullible to read into his works an erotic component.

Such has happened with his nostalgic poem, "Birches," which has lead some readers, including George Montiero, professor emeritus of Brown University, to associate a young boy’s enjoyment of riding birch trees with masturbatory activity.

Again, his well-placed subtlety of expression plays tricks on the those who make the mistake of reading into a poem that which is not there. And the unfortunate mistake of reading into a poem what is not there leads to missing the finer issues that are there.

Such reading-into-a-poem likely happens because of the special reading poetry requires for complete understanding and appreciation. Too many readers believe that poems always have double meanings or at least never really mean what they say.

And also many beginning poetry readers think that poems rely solely on figurative language. However, many of the best poems do not employ poetic devices but simply work with literal language.

Interestingly, most of Frost’s deceptively simple poems might be considered "tricky." In order to comprehend and appreciate their complexity and nuance, most of Frost poems require much more thought than a cursory reading would allow.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Putting in the Seed

You come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree.
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea;)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,

The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

Reading of "Putting in the Seed"

Commentary

The speaker is dramatizing his deep love for the simple act of planting seeds in the earth's rich soil and watching them grow to a plant. Interestingly, Robert Frost was more successful with composing poems about farming than with the actual act of farming.

First Quatrain: Burying Apple Tree Petals

You come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree.

In the first quatrain, the speaker/farmer addresses his wife. He tells her to come and get him after supper is ready. But he adds the somewhat capricious thought that maybe he will be prepared to stop work and maybe he will not. He will be "burying the white / Soft petals fallen from the apple tree" to fertilize the soil into which he will plant seeds.

Second Quatrain: Adding Nutrients to the Soil

(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea;)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,

The speaker's wife, it seems, questions him about burying "soft petals," and the speaker answers that sure, they have not quite decayed, but they will add enough nutrients to help invigorate the soil.

Then the speaker completes his thought that began in the first quatrain: after the wife comes for him, he will see if he will stop his work to go back to the house with her, but in fact, he thinks she might forget that she came to get him for supper, when she sees the alluring act of farming. She might want to join him in preparation for planting.

Third Quatrain: A Passion for Planting

Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,

If she becomes like him, she will be a "Slave to springtime passion for the earth." He has this passion, and if she sees how wonderful attending to this work is, she will probably want to join him because the act of planting is an act of love for nature, especially the mechanism that results in growing things.

And not only does planting foster such a passionate love, but also after planting, watching for the little sprouts to come bursting from the soil engenders in the earth-passionate "slave" a devotion that he expects to be contagious.

The speaker is looking ahead to "When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed," but the he drops off and waits for the couplet to complete that thought.

Couplet: The Bursting Forth of Seedlings

The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

As soon as weeds have started to take over the field/garden, the sprouts will be seen popping through the soil, and his little drama personifies the sprouts: "The sturdy seedling with arched body comes / Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs."

The farmer is fascinated by the bursting forth of little planted seedlings, and he thinks that if his wife comes to get him for supper, she will probably forget what she came for, as she watches the miracle of planting unfold.

Is This Poem about Coitus?

The answer is a resounding no!

A few misguided, genital-obsessed readers of Robert Frost poems have been tricked by certain Frostian poetic devices and become convinced that the poet was writing about copulation in some of his poems. His beautiful and spiritual "Birches" has suffered this erroneous interpretation in the minds of certain readers and critics.

In this poem, "Putting in the Seed," the last five lines metaphorically dramatize the speaker's feelings about watching a plant grow from a seed: it is similar to watching the birth of a child.

Thus, in the image, "Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs," the speaker has personified the baby plant by likening it to a baby human as it is being born, as the child’s head and shoulders push their way from the birth canal out into the wide world through the blood and tissue "crumbs" left behind.

Poets employ metaphors and other figurative language to express similarity between two disparate ideas, thoughts, events, or things; a gross misreading will occur if the reader assumes the point of the poem lies in the metaphor. A metaphor is a medium not a message.

This poem is about the speaker's love for planting natural seeds and watching the plants grow from them—not about copulation and later watching the birth of a human child.

Robert Frost was somewhat of a curmudgeon, although a likable one, and no doubt he got a chuckle seeing readers impute to his lines, through their own misguided ability to read into a poem, what is not there.

Sources

Favorite Robert Frost Poem

Questions & Answers

Question: What type of poem is this?

Answer: It is a lyric poem.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes