Eros & Metamorphosis in “Birches”

10 Nov

“Birches” is one of Robert Frost’s greatest poems and perhaps one of the subtly great poems of the 20th century. It is a poem of oppositions asserted (youth – tradition, nature – human; physical – transcendent; female – male; impulse vs society (“considerations”); audacity/ will – humility: all pervaded with a wry not especially funny humor. Some of these oppositions are integrated. It also is a poem of powerful erotic and metamorphic impulse. Perhaps the most striking instance is introduced by a metaphor that also bridges the descriptive to the emotional and visionary aspects of the work.
Well into the second section of the poem, the description of how birches are bent by ice-storms and how the changing warmth “cracks and crazes their enamel” till “they shed crystal shells,” so much so that you might “think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.” Here is one case where the natural and physical are made, via a conditional to introduce a transcendent and artistic (“inner dome”) dimension to the seemingly artless rumination and depiction.

But this description and figure merely prepare for the most striking transitional structure, syntactic and descriptive of the poem. The narrator speaks of the enduring effect that ice storms have on the way birch trees bend for years after: “once they are bowed / So long 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.” Then Frost moves on the section three, the second main part of the narration when he passes from the effect of ice storms on birches to how they are bent by boys swinging them, a process whose implications I will treat below. First I wish to focus on the verses just quoted, verses that complete the effect of the ice storms by a simile of the trees as country girls on their hands and knees drying their hair in the sun.

During this extended sentence the third person plural part of speech changes its reference from the bent birch trees, that “never right themselves” afterward to the girls throwing their hair before them to dry in the sun. The girls clearly are dryads and by this magic of poiesis, conveyed by a seemingly simple simile Frost introduces a powerful erotic attraction and force into a seemingly lovely nature poem. The implication is not simply to female tree spirits, such a figure is not simple for the Greeks, his reference point but includes the maenads turned into trees by Apollo for their dismemberment of Orpheus. The natural, seemingly innocent gesture also is given an implicit erotic audacity via its very nature, the classic ‘come on’ posture, and more subtly by the embedded phrase “they never right themselves” that described the trees that then, via the simile become the girls. Not for nothing, but for many things does Frost wryly and slyly conclude, saying, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches” the phrase have a further punitive resonance in that in the 18th and 19th centuries (the latter being one in which Frost, briefly a teacher, lived for his first 26 years) “a swinger of birches” (rods) often was a teacher administering punishment, like as not to a youth, or girl holding out a hand or bent over to receive the stroke on their bottom, a little “like girls on hands and knees” that “never right themselves” in their unconscious, perhaps, assumption of the dryad- maenad posture.

This metamorphosis and its powerful erotic harmonics are elaborated by Frost as he proceeds to the next section with its portrait of the typical youth that is “a swinger of birches,” the truth that mainly concerns him, he tells us, before Nature, in the guise of “Truth” “broke in with all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm…” So the human, led by the narrator goes on to assert the greater amplitude of truth that nature acquires when the human element in its engagement with nature to grow as a human is introdcued.

This boy, a self-reliant country boy, too far from town even to play baseball, learns to swing birches, a sensitive procedure of climbing like pouring “to the brim, and even above the brim.” Pertinent to its sensitivity is, as Frost tells it, its intrinsic phase of generational conflict and assumption of primary virility by the younger, up and coming generation.

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.

In the decades when “Freudianism” and psychological symbolism were constants of conversation — to the extent that men of letters like Karl Kraus spent decades critiquing it and Surrealist artists made endless paintings that were short hand references to Freudian symbols and processes, these verses have a clear component of sexual and generational conflict. They follow intriguingly upon the freedom, sensuality and hint of transgression, even impulsive eruption in the dryad – girls, one might say the ‘birch-girls’ such that the growing potency of the youth is a preparation for swinging these beautiful trees of innocent but somehow knowing abandon, as if they had incorporated from nature the sense that, in being bent, “the inner dome of heaven had fallen” and so, and for other reasons, “they will never right themselves…”

Ultimately, one climbs the birches for the sensation of freedom in kicking one’s legs out as one is carried from the peak almost weightlessly to the ground, a triumphant erotic act the antithesis of the climb and terrifying descent of Pentheus who also is here by literary harmonics through the figure of the youth climbing to the tree’s peak in order to get a peek at and a feel for the erotic energy in the birch girls, or perhaps, the ‘birched girls’ since that is what the figure makes them. Dionysus lurks around the margins and even inserts his energy into the center of this poem.

Frost drives home this dimension of the work, it’s about love, physical love that enables one to savor as much of the divine as one can in life. He’d “like to go by climbing a birch tree, / And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk / Toward heaven, till the tree [girl – woman ] could bear no more, / but dipped its top and set me down again.”

This is sublime in its complementarity of the lovers and of heaven and earth, for “earth’s the right place for love” Frost says in one of his pithy declarative sentences earned by his meandering and Wordsworthian, ruminative approach to truth.

When you climb and swing back down the tree in love and in order to love it is “good both going and coming back,” it is, after all, a process of going in and coming out or back, at least from the male side and Frost is a man. So there are several harmonics to the chuckle on which he ends, “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches” especially since society and world of work is “too much like a pathless wood,” too much like the antechamber of the Inferno, of hell, whose opening lines are evoked in so much of Frost’s poetry. The world of calculation and “considerations” smacks you like a branch in the eye while you try and keep your eyes open (another kind of branch) till you go weeping one, half blind.

The eros of birch-swinging is far better; it is, the poem tells us, a process of bringing heaven to earth and enjoying it. For this one must be careful and humble as well as bold; one must conquer but by proceeding cautiously, rather like Frost on the track of some truth in his meandering descriptive poems with their metaphors that slide in and strike with a characteristically unobtrusive power.

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