Study Guide

Birches Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Robert Frost

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

Appearance vs. Reality

Many poets, Frost included, like to play with the differences between appearances and observable facts. At some point in you're life you've probably misunderstood something someone said and messed up because of it, right? Also, you've probably had a dream that seems so real that you wake up and have to figure out if it really happened or not. Poets like to be sneaky with what we assume to be facts – they often imagine how things could be different.

  • Line 9: The speaker calls the ice coating the trees enamel. Usually enamel refers to the glossy and glassy coating around pottery. Pottery is considered art, but are trees art? The poet has painted a pretty picture of the trees, but now the image "cracks and crazes." The scientific reality of the sun and wind has broken up the artwork.
  • Lines 10 and 11: The speaker compares the ice to crystal shells and enhances the image with descriptive language. The imagery of "[s]hattering and avalanching" ice is a vivid sight to imagine.
  • Line 12: This metaphor of cracking ice as shattering crystal is conceptually tied together with broken glass, because the two images are so similar. The need to sweep the heaps of glass away turns the metaphor into an extended metaphor by adding on new metaphors to the original.
  • Line 13: The extended metaphor reaches its conclusion with the shattering of the crystal dome that was once said to separate earth from heaven.
  • Line 15: The extended metaphor is paralleled with how the birches "seem not to break." Notice how appearances are getting tied up with imaginative language and metaphors.
  • Lines 19-20: The broken trees are compared to girls drying their hair in the sun. This simile shows how the imagination can carry the speaker and reader away.
  • Line 21: "Truth" breaks into the poem, but the speaker is probably being ironic. The truths we've come across aren't so matter of fact. Instead they are imaginative ideas inspired by the "facts" of nature.
  • Line 44: This simile compares life to an overgrown forest. It's hard to tell what direction you're going when you can't find a path and end up getting poked in the eye by a twig.

The Boy

The boy in the poem is imaginary. Unlike the ice-storm that leaves its traces, the speaker only imagines the boy. The speaker imagines the boy as a younger version of himself. We learn that the boy represents the specific time in the speaker's life that was filled with simple pleasures, adventures in nature, and idle hours. The boy is the Romantic version of the speaker's desire to commune with nature, reaching to the heavens but never getting there.

  • Line 3: The speaker imagines a boy has bent some birches out of shape.
  • Lines 23-27: The imaginary boy lives in a "pastoral" world, meaning that he is closely tied with animals and spends most of his time happily playing in nature.
  • Lines 28-32: The boy is also a metaphor for the rugged, American individual. He has struck out into the land that is his by birthright and conquered anything there was to conquer. This individual often stands as a metonymy for America's Manifest Destiny towards the continent (and world).
  • Lines 33-40: The boy learns moderation and sensitivity towards his natural environment. His mastery of nature does not create a large "footprint."