Birches, by Robert Frost

I found Robert Frost's poem Birches at this URL:

The Poem's Message

Robert Frost's poem "Birches" extolls the virtue
of enticing virgins to sexual activity. In addition,
he claims to have done this himself.

The remainder of my thoughts are listed in numbered
footnotes identified in the poem by a bracketed number, 
e.g., [1].

The Poem


WHEN I see birches bend to left and right [1]
Across the lines of straighter darker trees, [3]
I like to think some boy's been swinging [2] them. 
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay. 
Ice-storms [3] do that. 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 [4]
As the stir [5] cracks and crazes [6] their enamel [7]. 
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells [8]
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust-- [8]
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away 
You'd think the inner dome [9] of heaven [10] had fallen. 
They are dragged to the withered bracken [11] 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 [12] in the woods 
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground 
Like girls on hands and knees [13] that throw their hair 
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun. 
But I was going to say when Truth broke in [3]
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm [3]
(Now am I free to be poetical?) 
I should prefer to have some boy bend them [14]
As he went out and in to fetch the cows-- [15]
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 [16]
By riding them down over and over again 
Until he took the stiffness [17] out of them, 
And not one but hung limp,[17] not one was left 
For him to conquer. He learned all there was 
To learn about not launching out too soon [18]
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 [19]
Up to the brim, and even above the brim. [20]
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, [21]
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground. 
So was I once myself a swinger of birches. [22]
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 [16]
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs [23]
Broken across it, and one eye [24] is weeping 
From a twig's having lashed [24] across it open. 
I'd like to get away from earth awhile 
And then come back to it and begin over. 
May no fate [25] willfully misunderstand me 
And half grant what I wish and snatch [26] me away 
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love: [27]
I don't know where it's likely to go better. 
I'd like to go by climbing [28] a birch tree,
And climb black [29] branches up a snow-white trunk 
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more [30], 
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. [22]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


All of the definitions below are extracted from the 
Random House Webster's online dictionary (ver. 1.0, 1992).

birch' fam ily  n. 
  a family, Betulaceae, of deciduous trees 
  with simple, serrate leaves, male 
  flowers in catkins and female flowers in 
  short clusters, and one-seeded nuts: 
  includes the alder, birch, and hazel.

birch (brch)  n., adj., v.  n. 
  any tree or shrub of the genus Betula, comprising species 
  with a smooth, laminated outer bark and close-grained wood.
  [bef. 900; ME birche, OE birce, c. MLG berke, OHG 
  birihha, birka; akin to OE be(o)rc, ON bjork, 
  Lith brzas, Skt bhurj- birch, L fraxinus ash]

The same dictionary lists 5 types of birch trees:

1 - pa'per birch   n. 
    a North American birch, Betula papyrifera, having a 
    tough bark and yielding a valuable wood. [1800-10, Amer.]

Bark of the paper birch was used for writing. Papyrifera is 
based on the etymon for papyrus, an early form of paper. 

Parchment, like papyrus, is also written on. 
 [1275-1325; late ME; ME parchemin < OF < Gallo-Romance *particaminum, 
b ??. L Parthica (pellis) Parthian (leather) and ML pergaminum, LL pergamenum, 
for Pergamena charta paper of PERGAMUM]
compare ME par+chemin and para=similar, like + Gk  hymn = skin, membrane
The hymen (see below) is a membrane that is usually intact in a virgin.

mem-brane (mem'brayn)  n. 
  a thin, pliable sheet or layer of ... tissue, serving to 
  line an organ, connect parts, etc.
  [1375-1425; late ME; ME membraan = parchment < L membrana.]
compare  L lamina (see lamina/enamel below).

2 - sweet' birch'  n. 
    a North American birch, Betula lenta, having smooth, 
    blackish bark and twigs that are a source of methyl 
    salicylate. [< Latin salix = willow (tree)] 
    compare salacious
       1.  lustful or lecherous.
        [1635-45; < L salax, der. of salire = to jump, 
          spurt, mount (of animals); cf. SALIENT)
          salient (say'lee uhnt, sayl'yuhnt)  adj. 
       2.  projecting or pointing outward.

    Also called . [1775-85, Amer.]. 
    5.  Slang (often vulgar).
        a.  the hymen.
        b.  virginity.

hy-men (hie'muhn)  n. 
  a fold of mucous membrane partly closing the external orifice 
  of the vagina in a virgin.
  [1605-15; < LL hymen < Gk hymn = skin, membrane, hymen]
Hymen was the ancient Greek god of marriage.

compare: examine
   2. to observe, test, or investigate 
       (a person's body or any part of it)

3 - white' birch'  n. 
    1. the European birch, Betula pendula, yielding a hard wood.
    2. PAPER BIRCH.  
    compare: pen-du-lous (pen'juh luhs, pen'dyuh-, -duh-)  adj. 
            1.  hanging down loosely: pendulous blossoms.
            2.  swinging freely; oscillating.
            3.  vacillating or undecided.
            [1595-1605; < L pendulus = hanging, swinging.]

Betula pendula is very alliterative. This poem ends with the phrase
"swinger of birches."

4 - yel'low birch'  n. 
     a North American birch, Betula alleghaniensis, having 
     yellowish or bronze bark.

5 - hop' horn beam  n. 
    any of several Eurasian and North American trees of the genus 
    Ostrya, of the birch family, esp. O. virginiana, bearing hoplike 
    fruiting clusters. [1775-85, Amer.]

This birch tree is not of genus Betula, but its species name is: 
virgin-iana. The genus Ostrya reminds one of the bread or wafer 
consecrated in the celebration of the (Christian) Eucharist because 
the ME word for it was oyst, derived from the Latin host = victim.
Host [1275-1325; ME oyst < MF oiste < LL hostia 
     Eucharistic wafer (L: victim, sacrifice)]

ME oyst explains why Lewis Carroll's "Walrus and the Carpenter"
ate Oysters. [walrus = L Odobenus rosmarus > ode + bent/twisted 
+ (sub) rosa = secret + (Virgin) Mary] 

* * * * * * 

Anita Konkka < > wrote:
In his book, The White Goddess, Robert Graves writes: 
" The first tree of the [tree alphabet] series is the self-propagating birch.
Birch twigs are used through Europe in the beating of bounds and the
flogging of delinquents - and formerly  lunatics -   with the object of
expelling evil spirits...  Birch rods are also used in rustic ritual for
driving out of the spirit of the old year... The birch is the tree of
inception. it is indeed the earliest forest tree, with the exception of the
mysterious elder, to put out new leaves (April 1st in England; the beginning
of the financial year; and in Scandinavia its leafing marks the  beginning
of  the agricultural year; because farmers use it  as a directory for sowing
their  Spring wheat. The first month begins immediately after the winter
solstice, when days  after shortening to the extreme limit begin to lengthen

So the birch, Beth is  the lucky tree of  the  birth-month -  from
Dec.24 to  Jan.20,  according to Graves.  This  month is very white  here
in Finland  - like the trunk of  the birches.  Maybe Robert Frost knew  the
tree  calendar.
/s/ Anita Konkka    
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
This tree might be called "birch" because it bends
easily, like one's knee. The Hebrew word for knee is 
bet-resh-khaf BeReKH ... which sounds quite a lot like 
English BiRCH.

In Germanic languages, a final G is often pronounced as 
ch or sh. B is a voiced stop. V is a voiced fricative. 
[In Hebrew, Bet and Vet are the same letter]. The Germanic 
word BiRCH sounds somewhat like the Latin word ViRGin. 

BeTuLa bet-taf-oo-lamed-heh is a Hebrew word that
means a virgin or maiden. The plural form BeTuLim
is masculine and means "virginity; hymen". Based on
the quote from Robert Graves (above), it seems the
birch genus is named Betula because it is self-
propagating, that is, self-pollinating.

1. verge
   1. the limit or point beyond which something begins or occurs.
   6. a rod or staff
   [1350-1400; late ME: shaft, column, rod..., ME: penis < MF: rod 
    < L virga]  (also see note [20] in the poem and below)
2. verge = to incline, tend 
   [1600-10; < L vergere to turn, bend, be inclined]

The ash is a similar tree from the olive family. 
It is called Fraxinus in Latin. It has purplish flowers. 
Fraxinus is cognate with Hebrew peh-resh-het 
PeRaKH = flower. 
[Het (without a schwa) is parallel to X = KS in
classical Greek and Latin.] Note the similarity
to "pregnant".

The reverse of the Hebrew word for flower is
het-resh-peh/feh which is a Hebrew homonym. 
KHoReF means "winter". KHoRPah means
"disgrace, shame". Compare this with the
English word "deflower": 

de-flow-er (di flou'uhr)  v.t. <-ered, -er-ing>
  1.  to deprive (a woman) of virginity.
 [1350-1400; ME deflouren < OF desflorer < LL 
  deflorare = to pluck, dishonor < de- DE - + 
  -florare, der. of flos FLOWER]

Of course, trees and other plants "flower" in the
spring or summer. The winter "deflowers" them.

Next, consider the Hebrew word shin/sin-het which
is also a homonym. SHaKH = bent, bowed. Converting the 
het to (Latin) X produces the word SeX.
SaKH = to talk, chat. Compare the British slang 
"to chat up (a woman)" = to entice to sex. 


[1] Frost is not talking about the John Birch society,
    which bends *very* far to the right. :-) 
    One meaning of "bend" is:
    3.  to cause to submit: to bend someone to one's will. 

[2] One of the definitions of "swing" is:
    19.  Slang.
     b.  to engage uninhibitedly in sexual activities. 
    Swing is cognate with sway, as in a sway-back horse which 
    has a bent back. Here is the etymology for sway: 
    [1300-50; ME sweyen < ON sveigja = to bend, sway].
    To sway also means:
     6.  to cause to move to and fro.
     9.  to cause to fluctuate or vacillate.
    10.  to influence (the mind, emotions, etc., or a person). 

[3] The term ice-storm is quite alliterative in Hebrew.
    kuf-resh-het KeRaKH = ice. It sounds like "c(e)rack" 
    samekh-aiyin-resh-heh S'(K)aRaH = storm. 
    It sounded like "score-ah" when the aiyin was a velar.
    Changing the het to (Latin) KS produces
    SKaRaH-KeRaKS = ice-storm, which is almost a palindrome. 
    Compare "Across the lines of straighter" with the most
    common method of keeping score: 4 vertical lines with a
    fifth line across them.

      15.  Slang. a sexual conquest.  
      22.  to make notches, cuts, marks, or lines in or on.

       1.  to break without separation of parts; become fissured.
      17.  Informal. to break into (a safe, vault, etc.).

    "Truth broke in". Compare true = straight, upright. 
    Probably a euphemism for the male organ.
[4] Another word for many-colored is:
    var-i-e-gat-ed (vr'ee i gay tid, vr'i gay -)  adj. 
       marked with patches or spots of different colors.
       [1645-55; < LL variegatus, ptp. of variegare to 
       make (something) look varied = L vari (us) 
       VARIOUS + -egare...]
    Compare VaRieGated and ViRGin. 
[5] Stir (as a noun) means "movement", but is also means 
    agitation, arousal of feelings, or excitation.

[6] Here, "cracks and crazes" means:

    craze (krayz)  v.  n. 
    2.  to make small cracks on the surface of (a 
        ceramic glaze, paint, or the like); 
        [1325-75; ME crasen = to crush < Scand; 
        cf. Sw, Norw krasa = to shatter, crush]

    Frost will use the word "shattering" two lines down.
    The word "crack/cracker" is a homonym with over 20 
    etymologically separate meanings. 

[7] Enamel is the reverse of lamina(ted). The birch tree has
     laminated bark.
    lam-i-na (lam'uh nuh)  n. pl. <-nae>(-nee ) <-nas>
    a thin plate, scale, or layer. 
    Compare with "hymen" and "membrane" defined above. 

[8] The Hebrew word for snow is shin-lamed-gimel SHeLeG.
    It provides an example of bilingual alliteration with
    the English word shells in the line above and becomes
    a near homonym with shells if you pronounce the final 
    G as SH (in Germanic). 

    Note the interesting switch between "CRySTal SHeLLs" 
    and "SHeLeG-CRuST. 

[9] dome
    [1505-15; < MF dome < It duomo < ML domus (Dei) 
    house (of God), church; akin to TIMBER]  

[10] heaven < ME heven < OE heofon ~ OS heban, ON himinn, 
     Go himins ~ OS, OHG himil (par'ee) 
     1.  Also called  a woman's status regarding the 
         bearing of offspring: usu. followed by a numeral 
         designating the number of times the woman has given birth.
     2.  the woman herself. Compare GRAVIDA.
     [1880-85; extracted from PRIMIPARA, MULTIPARA, etc.] 

     The Latin para is related to Heb peh-resh-yod PaRi = fruit,
     an in the phrase "be fruitful and multiply". L: gravidus = 
     pregnant, laden < grav(is) = burdened, loaded. 
     Latin GRaV reverses to in pregnant.

[16] father's trees = phantasies ?? 

     tree [bef. 900; ME; OE treo (w), c. OFris, ON tre, OS 
     treo tree, Go triu stick; akin to Gk drys oak, Skt, 
     Avestan dru wood]. The Greek root for wood, XyL,
     is related to the Heb word for tree, aiyin-tzadi
     (K)ayTZ. The tzadi is most often represented by S
     in other languages. Here, the KayS is the X in XyL.
     In English, this X is pronounced Z as in xylophone. 

     In Hebrew, xylophone is spelled with a kuf-samekh and 
     pronounced K'SiLoFoN. 

[17] Stiff --> hung limp seems to refer to a penis. 

[18] "launching out too soon" = premature ejaculation ? 

[19] Heb khaf-oh-samekh KoS = cup. 

    It is also Heb vulgar slang for vagina.
    Compare cup
    11.  any cuplike utensil, organ, part, cavity, etc. 

[20] Compare:
     verge [1]  (vrj)  n., v. 
     2.  the edge, rim, or margin of something
         [1350-1400; late ME: shaft, column, rod ... ME: penis 
         < MF: rod < L virga] 

[21]  Frost is using meaning #1 and not #8 below:
      1.  to move with or make a sibilant sound, as 
          a slender rod cutting sharply through the air.
      8.  Slang (disparaging and offensive). an 
          effeminate male homosexual. 

[22] Swinger of birches = one who swayed virgins.

[23] Here, cobwebs refers to confusions.
     5.   confusion or indistinctness: 
         a head full of cobwebs.
     [1275-1325; ME coppeweb, der. of OE -coppe = spider 
     c. MD koppe; see WEB]
     OE coppe = spider is related to Heb aiyin-kaf-vet
     'aKaV = to lie in wait. In modern Hebrew, spider is
     called 'aKaViSH, a meld of 'aKaV = lie in wait +
     kaf-vet-shin KaVaSH = to take into bondage. 
     Compare "put the KiBoSH on". 

[24] Compare "one eye ... lashed across it" with "eyelash" 

[25]  Here, fate is a noun. Even though it is not capitalized,
      it alludes to the three Fates:
      6.   the three goddesses of 
          destiny in Greek and Roman myth. 

[26]  Here snatch is being used as a verb, but it
      is also a noun with the meaning: female genitalia.
      snatch = slang: vulva, female pudenda 
      (< ME snacche (n.), snacchen (v.), kkbkt

     Frost is saying that he thinks this life (on earth)
     is probably the best place to engage in sex. 
     Don't wait until you go to heaven.

[28] climb < ME < OE climban ~ MLG, MD klimmen, 
     OHG chlimban ~ clamber < ME clambren 
     ~ Hebrew aiyin-lamed-heh (k)alah = go up, rise 
     + bet-mem-heh bamah = high place, mountain; altar
     betM memB or reversal (see scale, bema) 

     Perhaps Frost would like to die while making love 
     with a virgin? 

[29] See the definition of sweet-birch (#2 above).

[30] Could not become pregnant ?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Here are two more viewpoints:

Date: Fri, 2 Jan 1998 01:33:31 -0500 (EST)
From: Norman Rosenblood 

        BIRCHES is a complex poem, yet it isn't: it openly refers to
sexual matters, but it's conception of sexuality is not simple. The
oedipal theme is obvious in it's depiction of the boy's desire to bring
the father's trees to submission. The trees, however, are rich symbols of
several things: they contain enamel that is crazed as they click upon
themselves and are shattered by the sun (read son) in an avalanche and 
are reduced to rubble; though not destroyed they are crippled. I would
argue that the repetitive motion of swinging is masturbatory, but it is
accompanied by a primal scene phantasy suggested by the clicking "upon
themselves" and he is enraged by it and so seeks to master the whole
scene; to cool it off by encasing it [in] ice is not enough: the parents'
sexuality must be permanently bent. Furthermore, the mother/girl must be
placed in a position of perpetual subservience: "Like girls on hands and

Thus, the ice is a rich condensation: it is the agent that bends the
parents' sexuality and it is also the parents' sexuality. What is even
more interesting, perhaps, are the motivations for returning to the 
scene of the swinging. On the one hand he finds solace from suffering 
an eye being lashed; thus, he might be achieving revenge on the object
that initially inflicted pain on him. Along with this wish is another, the
fear of achieving his wish and being lost in his destructive phantasy and
punished for it: "May no fate...half grant what I wish and snatch me away
/Not to return."

The poem also contains a sense of wishing to destroy, but also a wish of
not having destroyed too much: the trees survive, but they have felt his
power: "they never right themselves." There is the idea of wanting to be
held by the tree, even "set down" by it.

One might conclude that creativity, love of nature and consolation are
sustained by these powerful phantasies, phantasies that permit destruction
and perpetuation of the objects that bend to his will and yet will remain
constant though damaged. The amalgam of guilt, fear and self-esteem give
the poem a complexity of deceptively fairy tale simplicity.

"Whose woods these are I think I know
 His house is in the village though;
 He will not see me stopping here
 To watch his woods fill up with snow."

My thanks to Israel Cohen and Robert Frost for adding another dimension to
the winter season here in Canada.

Norm Rosenblood
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
From: Milman/Rancour-Laferriere 

Dear fellow Birch-Folk,

Those of us who grew up in the woods of northern New England invariably
have special feelings about birches.  Birches are basically human.  Robert
Frost understood that.  And his hair was as white as white birch when I
watched him recite his poetry at Boston College in 1961.

Paul Friedrich has written a very interesting book titled
_Proto-Indo-European Trees: The Arboreal System of a Prehistoric People_
(Univ. of Chicago Press 1970).  In it he speculates that birch is an
ancient symbol of "young, virginal feminity."

I have a "Digression on Birches" in _The Slave Soul of Russia_ (NYU Press,
1995, 184-89).  The associations with birch ("bereza") in Russia are not so
much sexual and virginal, as maternal and violent.  You beat yourself with
birch switches in the Russian mother-bathhouse ("banya"), for example.
Young girls abuse birch trees in various adolescent rituals (tear off
branches, chop up the trees, strip the bark, etc.).  These rituals seem to
represent a break with the mother, which is violent and sad in a Russian
context (preliterate Russian culture was  virilocal, with girls carried out
through the window of the natal hut, like a corpse, and brought to the
husband's household - there are interesting folk laments on this theme).
The violent treatment of the birch does not seem to be a representation of
hymen-breaking.  There are fruits and berries (kalina-malina, etc.) and
river-crossings to represent THAT.

I know one Russian woman who emigrated to California, and who is quite
happy with the sunshine state.  But she planted a little birch grove in her
back yard for when she gets depressed and homesick (kogda toskuet po

Ah....birches.  Akh, berezy.  Makes me teary-eyed just to think of

Daniel Rancour-Laferriere
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Israel "izzy" Cohen^M^M

Israel Cohen < m>
Petah Tikva, Israel - Tuesday, September 29, 1998 at 05:28:07 (EDT)