Reality vs. Fantasy
“Birches” by Robert Frost is a nostalgic poem filled with fond memories and fantasies, yet at the same time the speaker reveals his longing to escape. Frost sets up a conversation with himself using dialogue between his sensible, knowing self and his fantasizing, nostalgic self. At first the poem seems to be just an account for all of the birches leaning with none standing straight. Frost would like to think that a child at play bent the trees, probably to escape the truth that nature destroys itself. The idea of trees being bent by ice and snow is much less romantic than the idea of a young boy enjoying himself, teaching himself some lessons about Physics and life. This idea of nature’s self-destruction is one that isn’t often addressed in our time, since most destruction to nature is blamed on humans and pollution. Frost, being a man of the country, realizes that nature often destroys itself, but he wants to imagine a different cause for the leaning branches. The speaker’s fantasy offers him a way to make some good come out of the injury to the branches, thereby allowing himself to recollect his past as a boy swinging from branch to branch. This fantasy also allows the speaker, not Frost, to escape from the reality of the destruction of the earth. For these reasons, this poem illustrates the battle of the speaker between the youthful thoughts of fantasy and the older, more plausible, facts of reality.
The description of the boy swing from branch to branch could also be construed as a metaphor: a boy’s actions swinging from birches represents his learning through feeling out situations and making mistakes while growing. Of course, a boy will learn of balance and heights while climbing trees, but there is an underlying admission that he is growing up. Frost uses the natural side of things in climbing trees to parallel growing up and becoming a man. The
description of the boy at play, “He learned all there was/To learn about not launching out too soon”, “?climbing carefully”; “Kicking his way down through the air to the ground” shows many traits of learning through experience. The clever choice of words in “with the same pains you use to fill a cup” he prompts the reader to remember the pain of growing up with all of the new challenges and tasks associated with growing up. Because of Frost’s commitment to using nature to help people explore them, it is not surprising that the most frequent methods in his attempt to deal with this nature-spirit dualism is the juxtaposition of reality and fantasy.
The speaker also relates the stages of life and tot he season of nature. He/she makes several references to what happens during the ongoing course of the seasons within the first twenty-two lines. The speaker draws us into his observation the trees “you must have see them / Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning / After a rain” and adds that “once they are bowed / So low so long, they never right themselves.” The speaker is revealing only the scientific aspect of this phenomenon. After he points out that the trees will be bent over the years, there is a major transition in the speaker’s way of thinking. he turned to his imagination again to provide the explanation he prefers. The idea of fantasy is introduced, and it is revealed that this aspect is much more favorable for the speaker when he/she says “I should prefer.”
The second part of “Birches” deals with a fantasy that is common to most of mankind; a longing to start over again. It is common to hear someone wish to start over again for countless reasons. Here Frost uses the simile “And life is too much like a pathless wood” to acknowledge that life can lead a person to feel lost. “Pathless wood” illustrates confusion, whereas “one eye weeping from a twig?” illustrates the sadness that comes from life’s adversity. In saying, “I’d like to get away from earth for a while” Frost expresses a desire for an escape not necessarily via
death, but perhaps through fantasy where he may start over again. He quickly addresses the idea of fate and explains that he doesn’t want his wish “half ” granted; he does not want to die; he only wants to go back to a time when life was care free and easy. His wish “to get away from earth awhile” is not a death wish. Frost’s love of life and the absence of gloom in this particular work illustrate that he simply wants a better place to be, a place where reality and stress can disappear for awhile.
The conclusion of the poem is confusing because it is difficult for the reader to understand why the speaker claims, “That would be good both going and coming back.” He could mean the feeling of free falling with the climax of springing upward, or he could refer to belief that one-day he will be reincarnated. In any case, he wished he could escape the pressures of everyday life by living or at least visiting the fantasy world he/she has created. This fantasy world is one which children in every day life create, and in which the speaker cane remember creating several years ago.
The personal aspect of the poem starts in line forty-one. The speaker takes the reader back with him in his/her flashback to childhood and the years of being “a swinger of birches.” The speaker lets the reader know the fantasy world he pictured and revealed was one that he had experiences as a child; one which he can remember the carefree feeling of being a child. “Too far from town to learn baseball” he used to “subdue his father’s trees / By riding them down over and over again / Until he took the stiffness out of them.” His imagination has survived the stressful adulthood that fact points to the antecedent scenario: a vision of birches reaches out to relieve his stress and reawakens his store of memories mixed with his fantasies of life.
The last eight lines seem to be the most important of the poem. These eight lines are an array of jumbled idea pointing to either the speaker’s world of reality of the speaker’s world of
fantasy. Starting these last eight lines is the idea of “Earth’s the right place for love,” but the speaker does not stick with this idea. He/she then turns to the concept of “climbing a birch tree.” This illustrates again the element of confusion and the fact that love or fear of illness could be the cause of his distress.
Most people remember their youthful years of living without stress and problems; and some of these people even wish to go back to that time of their life. The speaker in Frost’s “Birches” deals with the idea of reality/elderly versus fantasy/youth. The speaker realizes in his stressful state that fantasy offers an escape from reality, but Frost, as a poet, used this controversy in a different way. He illustrates that writing is much the same as a world of fantasy; free and stressless. Nevertheless, this poem illustrates that for most people the world of fantasy is a much more favorable environment than that of reality.