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A Poised Education: Robert Frost’s “Birches”

Perhaps, by the time you read these words, my thinking will have changed—it’s an odd way of speaking, the future perfect tense, an anticipation of something that, in the future, will be past. It creates a delicate balance, something that Robert Frost’s “Birches” is about pursuing. I’m remembering a discussion that I had with students about this poem, around fifteen years ago, and writing up some thoughts to hand out, hoping that we would have already been discussing the poem further. What is it about “Birches” that tangles my mind this way, casting me ahead of myself in hopes that by time I reach some future point, I shall have already done something I can’t yet anticipate?

 

The class (this was at Kenyon College, by the way, the years that I was lucky to teach there) discussed how the opening image—“When I see birches bend to left and right / Across the lines of straighter darker trees”—provides a picture of curved lines (the birches) crisscrossing a straight grid (“lines of straighter darker trees”). The image is even reinforced by the contrast between the dark lines of the grid and the “snow-white” trunks of the birch trees. At least provisionally, we connected the grid of straighter darker trees with the “Truth” that breaks into the poem, with “all her matter of fact about the ice storm,” as we connected the curving birches with imagination, in part because of their association with the speaker’s playful imaginings of the trees bending because of a playing boy; further, we discussed how this reasoned order and playful imagination are always part of each other, or at least need to be, as both the grid and curving lines are formed by trees making up the single wood. Thus, when Truth breaks in, the matter-of-fact talk is suffused with imagination: “Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away / You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen”—for in two lines the imagined ice has become glass fallen from the shattered dome of the sky. Likewise, reasoned order is a form of play that works by following rules, as the game of baseball (alluded to in line 25) requires its rules to allow the play to proceed. Likewise, the playing out of the poem itself requires its adherence to the iambic pentameter line that it plays against, sometimes even yielding lines—such as “Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust”—that almost, though not quite, successfully break out of the form.

 

But there is still more interplay, for in the images that play through the “Truth” about the ice storm, reason and imagination relate the speaker to the heavens and the earth in interaction, such as the line about the dome of heaven falling to the ground, and those about the “girls” who “throw their hair / Before them” to expose it to the sun. These lines suggest a kind of balance or poise between the high and the low, the sky and the earth, such poise as the imagined boy maintains when he climbs to the top branches of the trees to ride them down. The speaker’s exercise of imagining the boy reorients him; for it’s when his “life seems like a pathless wood” and he is “weary of considerations,” he seeks out this meditative relief. It might not be wholly out of bounds to relate that the word “consideration” has roots in the Latin words cum (with) and sidus (star), so that he feels most weighed down and lost in the world when, “weary of considerations,” he’s been hanging out too much with the stars, too taken up—I take it—with otherworldly concerns.

 

His fantasy of the boy swinging birches, keeping his “poise / To the top branches,” means regaining his own poise—which comes from Latin pendere, meaning weight—that is, experiencing the weight of his own body, the kinesthetic sensation of climbing the tree “toward heaven” and then reentering the world with such a balanced sense as one uses “to fill a cup / Up to the brim, and even above the brim.” Through his meditation on the birch-swinging boy, and thus experiencing this swinging imaginatively, he returns to the world with a balanced tone. “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches,” he says, recommending the meditation though without undue insistence. The tone itself remains balanced, an understated offering—there it is, it works for me, maybe it’s not for you.

 

Maybe the reason this poem puts me in a future perfect frame of mind is that when I read it, I hope for some kind of balanced resolution of my own by the time I finish the poem. But such a conclusion doesn’t come in a neatly packaged adage, as if one could say the meaning of the Ancient Mariner’s “Rime” is: Don’t shoot albatrosses. Frost’s “Birches” is more about a way of inhabiting the world, an embodied knowledge of the kind that Michael Polanyi referred to as a “tacit dimension.” I might be able to describe in exquisite detail all of the movements required to make a bicycle move, but I don’t really know how to ride a bicycle unless I can get on it and make it go myself. Much if not all of our knowledge, even the most abstract, depends at some level on such deeply embodied knowledge. Coming to a sense of balance between the things of this world and otherworldly matters—well, I suppose that’s a lifelong pursuit. I know for sure I don’t have it. But I’ll continue seeking it through my own practices. One could do worse.