Birches with Sexual Overtones


birch trees

At risk of courting an avalanche of mirth, or even worse, scathing academic scorn, I want to write about my ‘analysis’ of ‘Birches’, a poem by Robert Frost ( see copy below). But first, by way of self justification, I just want to say I agree with one of my poetry workshop participants last night who said that what she loved about poetry was how every poem, whatever the intention of its author, becomes the possession of the reader  because it is the reader who interprets its meaning.

So, that said, I’ll continue. According to general literary commentary, the poem, Birches, is about truth and imagination, heaven and earth, control and abandon, flight and return. I quote sparknotes[i]

The whole upward thrust of the poem is toward imagination, escape, and transcendence—and away from heavy Truth with a capital T. The downward pull is back to earth.”

However, when my friend and I read the poem, we came up with another interpretation. Is this poem about the adolescent awakening of boyhood sexuality? The following two lines provoked our initial questioning.

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

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

Both of us felt uncomfortable with the two lines. We felt they were at odds with the previous naturalistic bent of the poem. The image was strange. The girls must be there for a reason, I said. Let’s go back and look at the poem to see if there are other similar references. And suddenly, we could see them everywhere.  So, I came to the conclusion that swinging on the birch trees was definitely akin to the early sexual experience /lustful thoughts of a young boy. Now, I don’t know whether one can make double entendres of anything once one has the idea, but, given the earlier assertion that the poem is owned by the reader, this is now my official interpretation. My friend is less sure so I am putting forward this argument to see what others think.

Here is my brief justification:

For me, the portrayal early in the poem of the birch covered in ice and sun, blowing in breezes  in the sun’s warmth, “as the stir crazes and cracks their  enamel” has a feel of awakening, and stirring of emotions.  The line “You may see their trunks arching in the woods” just before the lines about the girls on hands and knees has sexual over tones and surely the reference to the dome of heaven “fallen” could refer to the early orgasm. I wondered whether the young boy who does not have the  distraction of sports, “whose only play was what he found himself” also suggests this. The use of the word ‘subdue’  which has connotations of  sexual power in relation to his father’s trees (the birches) is  strange, as are the following few lines:

“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.”

They seem to me be to  refer to a boy exploring his own body and sexuality. Frosts description towards the end of the poem could easily be describing the joy and exultation of the sexual act; its reaching for escape, the tip of the world, and returning to earth which is the ‘right place for love.’

I am not a poetry critic, other than in appreciating what I like and understand. But I wanted to write this as we haven’t been able to find any other reference to such an analysis in relation to Birches, and as a result, began to feel ‘wrong,’ and ‘stupid’ and ‘way off course’. But the poem is ours now, whatever Robert Frost intended. And, I like it better.  There is the ‘solar’ (the sense/meaning),  the ‘lunar’ (the sensual, the beauty), the ‘musical’ (the tone, the sound) and the ‘visual’ (the form); the poem is a torrent. Unlike, The Road Not Taken, there is no particular form… as is the case with young adolescent boys.

So, I rest my case and hope you enjoy the poem…do let me have any thoughts!

On a more personal note, I am really looking forward to reading in Galway tomorrow (Culture Day) twice! In Clifden at the Arts Festival I am reading my poem, The Ancient Song of the Pebble, published in the last Skylight 47 and then in back in Galway City I am reading Please May I Have a Man, long-listed in the At The Edge competition this year. Then back to Cavan at 10pm for the Trans-Art event celebrating Dermot Healy!



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.

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.







One thought on “Birches with Sexual Overtones

  1. Denise B. says:

    Eight years later, I have at last found a reading similar to mine! Once posited, the sexual nature of this poem cannot, IMO, be denied.

    “Over and over again/Until he took the stiffness out of them.”

    “Not launching out too soon.”

    “Your face burns…..And one eye is weeping.”


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