When the narrator looks at the birch trees in the forest, he imagines that the arching bends in their branches are the result of a boy “swinging” on them. He realizes that the bends are actually caused by ice storms - the weight of the ice on the branches forces them to bend toward the ground - but he prefers his idea of the boy swinging on the branches, climbing up the tree trunks and swinging from side to side, from earth up to heaven. The narrator remembers when he used to swing on birches and wishes that he could return to those carefree days.
This poem is written in blank verse with a particular emphasis on the “sound of sense.” For example, when Frost describes the cracking of the ice on the branches, his selections of syllables create a visceral sense of the action taking place: “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…”
Originally, this poem was called “Swinging Birches,” a title that perhaps provides a more accurate depiction of the subject. In writing this poem, Frost was inspired by his childhood experience with swinging on birches, which was a popular game for children in rural areas of New England during the time. Frost’s own children were avid “birch swingers,” as demonstrated by a selection from his daughter Lesley’s journal: “On the way home, i climbed up a hi birch and came down with it and i stopt in the air about three feet and pap cout me.”
In the poem, the act of swinging on birches is presented as a way to escape the hard rationality or “Truth” of the adult world, if only for a moment. As the boy climbs up the tree, he is climbing toward “heaven” and a place where his imagination can be free. The narrator explains that climbing a birch is an opportunity to “get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” A swinger is still grounded in the earth through the roots of the tree as he climbs, but he is able to reach beyond his normal life on the earth and reach for a higher plane of existence.
Frost highlights the narrator’s regret that he can ow longer find this peace of mind from swinging on birches. Because he is an adult, he is unable to leave his responsibilities behind and climb toward heaven until he can start fresh on the earth. In fact, the narrator is not even able to enjoy the imagined view of a boy swinging in the birches. In the fourth line of the poem, he is forced to acknowledge the “Truth” of the birches: the bends are caused by winter storms, not by a boy swinging on them.
Significantly, the narrator’s desire to escape from the rational world is inconclusive. He wants to escape as a boy climbing toward heaven, but he also wants to return to the earth: both “going and coming back.” The freedom of imagination is appealing and wondrous, but the narrator still cannot avoid returning to “Truth” and his responsibilities on the ground; the escape is only a temporary one.