Answer: “Birches” seems to be a playful poem, for it depicts picture of the poet’s playing with them in all his poetic fancies. But it is not a mere play; it contains the poet’s wisdom which is profound and practical. It talks about how a boy can play with the birches, as the poet did, as well as of the wisdom that the resilience of the birch trees can be destroyed by too much and too prolonged pressure exerted by the ice-storms. It symbolically represents the pliancy of human nature, its going down and rising up again under moderate pressure. Under the pressure of circumstances the poet would like to get away from the earth for the time being, and then come back to it and begin it over again. He does not want to take leave of his earth forever. He thinks that the earth is the right place for love, and he does not know where it is likely to go better.
When the birches bend to left and right, it seems to the poet that some boy has been swinging them. After a rain they are found loaded with ice, but they click upon themselves as the breeze rises. The stir “cracks and crazes” their enamel, and they turn many-colored. The crystal shells shatter and a valance on the show crust. Their quantity is such that you would think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. If they are bowed very low for long, they never right themselves; their trunks lie arching in the woods years afterwards, like girls on hands and knees throwing their hair before them over their heads to dry in the sun. The poet himself was once a boy—a swinger of birches. Now he dreams of going back to being such a boy, especially when he is “weary of considerations”, and vexed by the problems of life. He wants to get away from the earth for some time, and then come back to it and begin over. He does not want to stay away from the earth permanently. He would like to go by climbing a birch tree, climb black branches up a snow-white trunk towards heaven till the tree could bear no more. Then it would dip its top and set him down again. That would be good both going and coming back.
The poet reveals one wisdom through the poem—that is the flexibility and inflexibility of human spirit through the pressure of circumstances. The birches symbolize the nature of human psyche. If the world is such that it puts moderate pressure on the human psyche, then it has enough flexibility to bend down first under the pressure of circumstances, and then erect itself up shaking off its temporary frustration. The birches bend temporarily this way and that when some boy playfully swings them. They do not bend down permanently under the swinging of a playful boy. But they do bend permanently if something too heavy for their resilience forces itself upon them. In nature, ice-storms do exert such pressure on the birches. If they do happen too frequently, the resilience of the birch trees is destroyed, and they remain permanently bent down. Human spirit has some such degree of resilience. If the worries and anxieties, problems, disappointments, and such other phenomena of the human spirit are of moderate intensity, it can feel disappointed for some time, but soon asserts itself with renewed vigor. But if such things as problems, sorrows, frustrations, failures and disappointments, are too much for the human spirit to bear, if they are too heavy and too powerful, then it may succumb to them permanently and never assert itself again, and face the world with courage and determination.
The poem reads like life itself, Life has its moments of playful delights, but at the same time, gives out profound wisdom. The poet’s love for the earth is expressed in the poem. His sensible attitude towards life is also expressed. The poet was once a swinger of birches when he had been a playful boy. But now that he is a grown-up, he cannot be a swinger of birches any more, but he would like to go back to his boyhood life. He has this wishful thinking when he is too much burdened with the problems of life. When he is “weary of considerations, and life is too much like a pathless wood”, he feels like escaping from the earth. The poet symbolically expresses his problems in this way—
“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.”
When he faces problems, difficulties, and meets frustrations and failures in life, he wants to escape from the world only temporarily. But he would like to return soon and begin life over again. In spite of all the problems and frustrations of life, the poet loves the earth, and he likes the game of life, bending down sometimes under the pressure of life’s adverse circumstances, and rising strong again asserting his spirit. He also thinks that the earth is the right place for love. The poet’s imagination gives him the impression that there is no other place which is better than the earth for love. Love is the sweetest thing in life, and though life may have multifarious problems and disappointments, and other negative aspects, love makes it a place worth living in. The poet is mentally holding a comparison between the earth and other place that might exist. In the implied comparison the earth fares better because it is the place for love. The love we experience in this earth makes it a more lovable place; such kind of love is not possible in any other place than the earth. We get pleasure from life’s mere frolicsomeness on earth which is not altogether devoid of wisdom.
So, Louis Untermeyer’s remark about the poem touches the depth of the poem’s philosophy, with its superficial texture of frolicsomeness. The poet philosophizes his ideas in the poem which has given it a touch of wisdom. The poem is a delightful mixture of wisdom and playfulness. The wisdom side of it delights the reader’s mind, and its sportive side makes it a poem of endearment for him.