While Robert Frost’s, For Once, Then, Something, isn’t the most memorable of his poems, it’s one of his most unique. It’s written, nominally, in hendecasyllabics. It’s also one of the most devilish to scan. Frost was imitating the Latin meter of Catullus – said to be one of his favorite Latin poets. What makes the poem difficult to scan is that the English language simply does not do what Latin did. English is not a quantitative language (meaning that syllables are long or short). English is an accentual language, meaning that words receive more or less stress dependent on their usage.
I notice that Wikipedia makes much ado about the difference between Hendecasyllable and Hendecasyllabic, (Hendecasyllabic Verse or Hendecasyllabics). However, the author or authors of the Wikipedia article offer no citations to back up their assertions. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics makes no such distinction. Hendecasyllabic, according to Webster’s and to Princeton, is simply the adjectival form of Hendecasyllable (an eleven syllable line or word). On the other hand, a distinction can be made between Latin quantitative Hendecasyllabics and the accentual Hendecasyllabics of the later Romance Languages, but that appears unrelated to the whether the word is used as a noun or adjective.
The English language is a naturally Iambic and Anapestic language (meaning that the language prefers a rising stress). In nominal phrases, we don’t normally say the car, we say the car. (The former also makes sense, but the exception proves the rule.) By stressing the, we draw attention to the fact that the car is singular. We can do this because English is an accentual language. It is the car. Also, all of our prepositional phrases prefer a rising stress (iambic or anapestic). In a previous post, one commenter objected that I didn’t take into consideration regional or dialectal inflections. Not so. This feature of the language has nothing to do with regional or dialectal inflections. It is simply the way our language works. It’s the reason Iambic meters, rather than Trochaic meters, are the dominant meters of English poetry.
So, what does all this have to do with Frost’s poem?
The problem is that the hendecasyllabics of Catullus, when transliterated into English, make for a trochaic meter. Trochaic meters are extremely difficult to pull off in English. Few poets actually pull it off. No poet, to my knowledge, has succeeded through and through. What do I mean by this? I mean that, at the first chance, the reader will want to read a line as Iambic rather than trochaic. For example, if Frost’s poem were written in Latin, here is how we would unflinchingly scan the first line.
Others | taunt me with | having | knelt at | well-curbs
This is essentially Trochaic Pentameter with a variantdactylic second foot. If you were being asked to scan this poem for a class, then this is how the professor would probably expect the poem to be scanned (and I’ll provide this scansion), but as far as the English language goes. Here is how most of us will read the line:
Others | taunt me | with ha|ving knelt |at well-curbs
This is essentially Iambic Pentameter with two variant trochaic feet (the first and second foot) with a feminine ending. By modern standards, this would be a perfectly acceptable variant line within a larger Iambic Pentameter poem. And therein lies the rub. Being English speakers we prefer to hear Iambs rather than trochees. We naturally bias our readings toward Iambs. Here is another option:
Others taunt| me with hav|ing knelt | at well-crubs
This makes the meter tetrameter (four foot) rather than pentameter. The first foot is cretic, the second anapestic, the third Iambic and the last a feminine ending, or an amphibrach.
All the variations above are hendecasyllabic. The first two might be called a Pentameter Hendecasyllable and the last might be called a Tetrameter Hendecasyllable.
So, when scanning the poem, what do we do? Do we scan it according to the poet’s intentions, or how the lines actually work in the English language? Frost may have been imitating a Latin meter, but the language is English.
Here is the poem as Frost intended it:
Robert Frost reciting:
In the scansion above, I only marked the first line. All the following lines are the same except for the first foot of line 12. As you can hear, Frost reads this first foot as a spondee. Trochaic meters are less forgiving as far as variant feet go and if only for this reason, Frost departs from the hendecasyllabic meter only once. It’s probably the most metrically conservative poem Frost wrote after his first book of poetry.
Robert Pack, in his book Belief and uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, Page 30, incorrectly identifies this poem as a sonnet. He doesn’t do so elsewhere in the book which leads me to think this was a slip of the pen.
By way of comparison, here is the scansion of a hendecasyllabic line in Latin.
The example comes from a powerpoint document I found online (no author is given). Clicking on the link or image will download it – if you’re curious. The paper is intended for students studying Latin. While the symbols used are similar to those used for accentual-syllabic verse, the symbols mean something different. What Frost (and all English poets) have done is to substitute a stressed syllable for a Latin long syllable, and an unstressed syllable for a Latin short syllable. If you don’t want to download a Powerpoint presentation but are still curious, here’s another resource from the Iona School of Arts & Sciences:
Scanning it the way we read it
Dactylic feet are hard to pull off for the same reason that trochaic meters are hard to pull off. The English speaker’s ear will always want to turn a dactyl into a anapest.
So although Frost may have imagined the third line as follows:
Deeper | down in the |well than |where the |water
No reader, without a prior knowledge of the Latin verse Frost was transliterating, would ever scan it this way. Nearly all prepositional phrases are heard as anapestic (as a rising stress) by English speakers.
Deeper down |in the well |than where |the water
None of this is to say that there aren’t dactylic words or phrases, or that a dactylic meter can’t be written. Longfellow’s opening lines to Evangeline have a dactylic gait. But Longfellow isn’t assiduous in pursuing a dactylic meter for long:
THIS is the | forest pri|meval. The |murmuring |pines and the |hemlocks, Bearded with |moss, and in |garments green, indistinct in the twilight…
The Dactylic gait is helped when the first word of each line receives the stress. Frost’s hendecasallabic line also places the stress on the first word of each line but the effect isn’t the same. The first foot isn’t dactylic but trochaic, so the ear isn’t primed for a dactylic reading as with Longfellow’s poem.
Furthermore, 9 out of the 15 “dactylic” feet are prepositional phrases, which strongly favor an anapestic reading.
to the light
in the well
in a shining…
in the summer
of a wreath
as I thought
of the depths
from a fern
So, after all that, how would I scan it? I opt for a tetrameter line.
Once again, the scansion for each line, following the first line, is the same unless otherwise marked.
This scansion, I think, more accurately reflects how we read the poem and I like it because there’s a nifty symmetry. Where the first foot is cretic, or an amphimacer, the final foot is a sort of mirror image, an amphibrach (otherwise called a feminine ending). The second foot is anapestic and the third is iambic. Lastly, and best of all, the first foot of the twelfth line is a Molossus. A molossus is a metrical foot of three syllables with each syllable being stressed. Molossus. Good word. Good foot. Very rare.
The speaker of the poem is both the poet himself and his reader. The criticism he has received from critics and other poets, he characterizes and analogizes in the first six lines of the poem:
Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
My myself in the summer heaven, godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
“Others taunt me”, he writes, in reference to critics. He is accused of kneeling at well-curbs, “always wrong to the light” – where “light” could be understood as knowledge, poetic knowledge or understanding. The result? He never sees “deeper down in the well”. His poetry and meaning is shallow. His poetry is merely a “surface picture” lacking substance. Then, with some wry humor, he adds that, rather than perceiving the deeper currents of the well’s waters, he only sees himself in “heaven, godlike,/ Looking out of a wreath of fern…”. The sly reference to Apollo’s laurel’s, the Poet’s Laurels which Keats so desired, from which the term “Poet Laureate” comes, is unmistakable. In other words, he is accused of being little more than a vain, cracker-barrel philosopher suffering from delusions of grandeur. That view and criticism of Frost still holds up today – in some quarters.
From there Frost turns to more Philosophical matters – a defense.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths-and then I lost it.
Frost essentially rejects the notion that there is a truth, the truth, that can be perceived beneath the surface. Yes, he may have thought (in his youth) that there was something “beyond the picture” (that surface picture which, ultimately, is all we have) but whatever truth that was, he “lost it”. And in the losing of it, he rejects the notion that it can be known. He writes:
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.
Water creates the reflective surface upon which we perceive life and understand life. The surface of water, in this poem, is like Keats’ veil – it is everything that we see, but only the surface of what we see. The surface of the water is what we perceive as reality. And when we try to look beyond it, past the veil, one drop falls “from a fern”, almost teasingly, blurring and blotting out any deeper truth. We are not meant to know but to guess, Frost seems to be saying. But there may be another analogy at play. The surface of the water could also be seen as the textual surface of a poem. In this sense, the person peering into the well is transformed into the reader or critic reading one of Frost’s poems. Frost rejects certainties. He rejects the “too clear water” of other poets and rejects the critics’ call for it. When they look too closely, lo, “Water”/Frost “rebukes” them.
“What was that whiteness?” – Frost asks. “What was that whiteness?” -the critic asks.
Neither are meant to know with any certainty – only that, yes, there was and is “something”. Keep looking, says Frost. Keep looking.
By contrast, Tyler Hoffman takes a different set of concerns to the poem. Here is some of what he writes:
In “For Once, Then, Something” Frost depicts someone who tries to find a way to know (and know he has known) such a moral absolute as Truth. The speaker seems to be an object of ridicule for pursuing absolutes without a proper faith — a person blinded by egotistical concerns (“Others taunt me with having knelt at well curbs”). But that figure is not fully imagined; we do not receive a profile that would help us determine with certainty the attitudes and emotions behind his utterances. It us unclear how he feels about the taunting that he receives and how his search for “Something more of the depths” is shaped by it. The questions leading up to the phrase in its final appearance only muddy the water: “What was that whiteness? / Truth? A pebble of quartz?” How are we to hear these questions? Does he ask them in an agitated tone?… The epistemological problem that the poem presents — “How can we know the Truth if at all?” and “How do we know if we have known Truth?” – is never finally resolved. (Pages 113-114)
My own view on Hoffman’s comments is that he asks questions that Frost himself does not try to answer. This sort of analysis by rhetorical question gets mixed reviews from me. To me, at least, the trick is guessing at what questions Frost does ask, based on the poem which is, in and of itself, the answer.
Here is Robert Pack’s take:
…in “For Once, Then, Something,” in looking down into the bottom of a well to discern the identity of some object glittering there, Frost ironically speculates that it might be “Truth” or merely “A pebble of quartz.” Frost’s dismissal of the concept of truth as such is much like Stevens’s parodic line, “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” In Stevens’s outrageous concluding line in “The Man on the Dump,” the word “truth” finally is replaced by the word “the,” suggesting ironically that “the” is the more specific and useful word. For Frost, the abstract idea that there is something we might call Truth goes beyond uncertainty into meaningless abstraction. Even when Frost uses “Truth” capitalized as a term as in “Birches,” he does so to make the distinction between his fancy that the birch trees have been permanently bent down by a boy’s swinging on them and the truthful “fact about the ice storm.” In other words, truth here is known in its specificity, as a phenomenon of nature. His dismissal of Truth in its abstract grandiosity is part of Frost’s anti-romantic strain, his worldliness, his suspicion of anything smacking of transcendence, as distinguished, say,. from Keats’s indentification of Beauty and Truth in both poetry and his lectures. (Pages 184-185)
Once again, I hope this post has been helpful. Let me know.
I love comments. If you’re a student, just drop a note with the name of your school. I’m always interested to know who’s reading and why.
February 22, 2009 – After reading this post, you might enjoy a colorcoded scansion of Birches included with a scansion of Frost’s Mending Wall.
April 25, 2009 – Added audio of Frost reciting Mending Wall.
May 9, 2009 – Added notes about the poem and discussed Frost’s erotic bent.
….the poem is more about striking a balance between getting “away from earth” and then coming “back to it” than it is about overcoming fear. He told his former student, John Bartlett: “It isn’t in man’s nature to live an isolated life. Freedom isn’t to be had that way. Going away and looking at a man in perspective ,and then coming back… that is what’s sane and good.” In one interview in 1931, he extolled the virtues of “striving to get the balance.” He added, “I should expect life to be back and forward–now more individual on the farm, now more social in the city,” reflecting the pattern of his own life. (Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetryp. 77)
So wrote Lea Newman in her introduction to Birches. The genius of the poem is in its beautiful and powerfully sustained use of a fairly straightforward extended metaphor – swinging birches as a metaphor for balance. Frost is careful not to over interpret that balance. It could be between earth and spirit, nature and civilization, childhood and manhood, love and loss. The reader will bring to the poem his or her own meaning – and it is this capacity of the poem that makes it a great poem, a work of genius.
For most readers there’s no hidden subtext beyond what’s grasped intuitively.
Those “straighter, darker trees,” like the trees of “Into My Own” that “scarcely show the breeze,” stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will.
I’ve read Birches countless times, and the feeling of an ominous menace never once crossed my mind. To read this kind of interpretation into the imagery requires some kind of context and there simply is none – not in two lines. And referring to “Into my Own”, as though the two poems were somehow related or created the context for such an interpretation, is nonsensical. But the bottom line is that there doesn’t have to be a symbolic undercurrent (or double meaning) to every single word or image. Close readers and academics love nothing more than teasing out interpretations, but just because it can be done, doesn’t mean there’s any objective validity to the interpretation. At some point, such exercises strike me as being more like parlor games.
Just because the other trees are darker doesn’t mean that they are ominous. Fact is, every single tree in the New England landscape is darker than the birch. And for the most part (and after a good ice storm) most other trees are, factually, straighter than birches. In The Wood Pile, Frost refers to the view as being “all in lines/Straight up and down of tall slim trees,” One need not read any more into Frost’s imagery than the simple fact of it.
But, naturally, if Lentricchia is going to invoke menace, he needs to explain why (to justify that interpretation). He writes that they are menacing in their “irresponsiveness to acts of human will”. I just don’t buy it.
At best, one would need to make the assumption that Frost’s use of the word dark always constituted some kind of menace when used in reference to trees or the woods. But in his most famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Frost writes that “The woods are lovely, dark and deep”. Despite Frost’s use of the word lovely, this hasn’t stopped close readers from suggesting that Frost was contemplating suicide and that loveliness, far from being praise of the New England wood in winter, was a contemplation of the lovely, dark and deep oblivion that is suicide (or so they interpret it). Richard Poirer is among those who have made this suggestion. By the absence of a comma between the word dark and the word and he concludes that the “loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous.” The italics are mine. But Poirier’s reading could hardly be called objective. There is, in fact, no way of knowing what significance such punctuation might have held for Frost. However, Frost did have a thing or two to say about ominous interpretations. William Pritchard writes, in Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered:
Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]
All of which is to say, Frost had little patience for self-pity or, by extension, suicide. One need only read Out, Out to get a sense of Frost’s personality. In short, one can contemplate the soothing darkness and loveliness of the woods without contemplating suicide. But you decide.
Beyond the interpretation of individual words and lines, there is a larger philosophical debate within the poem that will flavor what readers bring to the poem. It happens in the opening lines:
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms 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-coloured
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
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 You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken 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 in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun. But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm, I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–
The italicized lines bracket a digression that Frost characterizes as Truth. What does he mean? In fact, the differentiation Frost implies between Truth and his playful, imaginary fable of the boy climbing the birches, is central to the poem’s meaning. The world of Truth could be construed as the world of science and matter-of-factness – a world which circumscribes the imagination or, more to the point, the poetic imagination, Poetry. The world of the poet is one of metaphor, symbolism, allegory and myth making. At its simplest, Frost is describing two worlds and telling which he prefers and how he values each. “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” And by that, he could almost be saying: One could do worse than be a poet.
The underlined passage “You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen”, has been nicely interpreted as a reference to Ptolemaic astronomy (which believed that the planets and stars were surrounded by crystal spheres or domes). I like that interpretation and I can believe that Frost intended it. The inner dome and its shattered crystal shells like “heaps of broken glass” fit neatly within the allusion. But there is significance in the allusion. The Ptolemaic model of the universe was a poetic construct – a theory of the imagination rather than matter-of-factness. In this sense, Truth as Frost calls it (or modern science) has collapsed the inner dome of the poetic imagination and replaced it with something that doesn’t permit the poet’s entry. The shattered inner dome of the imagination (of the myth makers) has been replaced by fact – by science.
And in this light, the entirety of Frost’s description, climbing the birches, just so, and swinging back down, becomes a kind of description for the life which the poet seeks and values – the imaginative life of the poet:
…. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
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
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
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
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.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree….
The poet learns all there is to learn about “not launching out too soon”. He could be describing the art of poetry. You cannot swing from a birch without the right height. But if you also climb too high, if your ambitions exceed the matter of your poem, the birch will break . You must write your poetry, climbing carefully, with the “same care you use to fill a cup,/Up to the brim, and even above the brim.” But I don’t want to limit the poem’s meaning to just this. Frost is describing more than the poet, but a whole way of interpreting the world.
It’s the difference between the mind that seeks objective truths, irrespective of the observer, and the mind that perceives world as having symbolic, metaphorical and mythical significance. It’s the world of religion and spirituality. Its the world of signs and visions – events have meaning. In the scientific world view, nothing is of any significance to the observer: life is like a “pathless wood”, meaningless, that randomly afflicts us with face burns, lashing us, leaving us weeping. The observer is irrelevant. In some ways, science is anathema to the poet’s way of understanding the world. It’s loveless. And that’s not the world Frost values. “Earth’s the right place for love,” he writes. The woods that he values have a path and the birches are bent with purpose.
But having said all that, Frost also acknowledges a balance.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
If we read him right, he seems to be saying that he prefers not to be too much in one world or the other. Let him climb toward heaven, both literally and figuratively, but let him also be returned to earth. Having written this much, Frank Lentricchia’s own interpretation of the poem’s divisions may be more easily understood:
….There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost’s motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader’s as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated…..
If I may be so bold as to interpret (and interpreting academese does take some boldness), what Lentricchia seems to be saying is that Frost’s philosophical stance does not arise from any direct experience (as stated in the poem). Direct experience would be “epistemologically sanctioned”. Epistemology, a word coddled and deployed by academics with fetishistic ardor, is the “branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” So, to interpret, Lentricchia appears to be saying that Frost’s “vision/philosophy” is not “epistemologically/experientially” “sanctioned/based“. In short, Frost’s experience (and that of the readers) is that of the poet and poetry – the purely subjective realm of imagination, story telling and myth making.
Interestingly, those who criticize the poem for being without basis in experience (Lentricchia is not one of them) seem blissfully unaware that this is precisely the kind of knowing that the poem itself is criticizing and examining. That is, the poem is its own example of myth-making — the transformative power of poetry. Yes, says Frost, there is the matter-of-fact (epistemologically sanctioned) world, but there is also the poetical world – the world of metaphor and myth that is like the slender birch (and the poem itself). It can be climbed but not too high. The matter-of-fact world is good to escape, but it is also good to come back to.
“Mending Wall,” “After Apple-Picking,” and “The Wood-Pile” are centered on specific events that involve the speaker in dramatic conflicts and lead him to extraordinary perspectives. ¶ (….)however, “Birches” does not present a central dramatized event as a stimulus for the speaker’s utterance. Although the conclusion seems sincere, and although Frost created a persuasive metaphorical context for it, the final sentiments do not grow dramatically out of the experiences alluded to. (….) Frost’s confession that the poem was “two fragments soldered together” is revealing; the overt, affected capriciousness of the transitions between major sections of the poem (ll. 4-5, 21-22, and 41-42) indicates that instead of striving to establish the dynamics of dramatized experience, he felt he could rely on the force of his speaker’s personality and rural background. In early editions, a parenthetical question, “(Now am I free to be poetical?),” followed line 22, making the transition between the ice storm and the country youth even more arbitrary.
My own view is that rather than making the poem feel arbitrary, the question Now am I free to be poetical? makes Frost’s thematic concerns too explicit. The question too sharply defines the contrast between the matter-of-fact and the poetical. In short, Frost may have felt that the question overplayed his hand. (Some critics read this question as an affectation. I don’t. I read it as signaling the poem’s intent, a “stage direction” that Frost later removed.)
Frost was striving for balance both in poem and subject matter — between the poetical and the matter-of-fact.
Some readers have interpreted the poem as being about masturbation. George Monteiro, Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance, alludes to this interpretation in the closing paragraphs of his own analysis. (And if you have searched on-line, then you have probably found the same interpretation in some haphazard discussions.) But here is what Monteiro (in full) has to say:
If physiologically there is some sort of pubescent sexuality taking place in the “swinging” of “birches,” it is not surprising, then, that the boy has “subdued his father’s trees” by “riding them down over and over again” until “not one was left for him to conquer” and that the orgasmic activity should be likened to “riding,” which despite the “conquering” can be done time and again. One need only note that the notion of “riding,” already figurative in “Birches,” reappears metaphorically in Frost’s conception of “Education by Poetry,” wherein he writes: “Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know . . . how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you.” And what is true for metaphor and poetry is true for love. Frost insisted that a poem “run . . . from delight to wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Then it is totally appropriate within the metaphor of “swinging birches” that even the storm-bent trees should look to the adult male like “girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” No wonder, then, and fully appropriate it is, that when the poet thinks that his wish to get away from earth might by some fate be misunderstood such that he be snatched away never to return, his thought is that “Earth’s the right place for love.” At some level of his consciousness the pleasurable activity of “swinging birches” has transformed itself into the more encompassing term “love.” One might say, within the logic of this reading of the poem, that “Earth’s the right place for [sexual] love,” including onanistic love. The same sexual metaphor runs through the final lines of the poem as the mature poet thinks of how he would like to go but only to come back.
It’s an intriguing interpretation, but I don’t buy it. Frost was capable of writing about sexual themes, but there’s no precedent, elsewhere in his poetry, for such a sleight of hand. Just as any number of critics can convince themselves that Shakespeare was a lawyer, a homosexual, Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, a woman, and even Queen Elizabeth, one can surely find evidence for just about any interpretive inference in just about any poem. Figurative language and metaphor, by definition, lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
The interpretation must remain, at best, purely speculative and very doubtful at that.
Then again, many modern critics and readers feel that the author’s intentions are irrelevant. Fortunately for the reader, the same rules apply to those critics and readers. Just because an interpretation can be made doesn’t mean they’re right or relevant. Again, you decide.
Robert Frost & the Blank Verse of Birches
I wanted to take a look at Robert Frost’s blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) and Birches is a beautiful example. I understand that this won’t interest most readers and many may find it irrelevant. The rest of this post for those who enjoy studying how meter can be used to masterful effect. If you’re one of those, be sure to comment. I would enjoy hearing from you. In an effort to avoid a book-length post I’ll read the poem 10 lines at a time. But first, here is the poem in its entirety along with my scansion. If you are new to scansion then take a look at my post on the basics.
As with The Road Not Taken, the other Frost poem I looked at, I listened to Frost read the poem before I scanned it. I actually would have been tempted to scan it differently before listening. The first line for example, I might have scanned:
When I |see bir|ches bend |to left |and right
That is, I might have been tempted to put the emphasis on When instead of I. Critics sometimes accuse metrists of unnaturally fitting a poem’s language to a metrical pattern. Read anapests, they say, don’t elide the anapest to read as an Iamb. What they forget though, is that poets who right metrical poems are themselves metrists. That’s why, when I read a line like To be or not to be that (is) the question, I prefer to put the emphasis on is. (It’s in keeping with the Iambic Meter). Similarly, listening to Frost, one can clearly hear him reading the meter. When I, he writes and reads.
Interestingly, Frost reads the fifth line as follows:
But swinging them doesn’t bend them down to stay As ice-storms do.
Instead of “Ice storms do that“. I like the printed version better because it varies the Iambic beat and makes the thought feel more like a colloquial aside. My guess is that Frost was reciting this from memory and that the Iambic alteration was easier to remember (which was partly blank verse’s advantage on the Elizabethan stage). The fifth line ends with an iambic feminine ending. And I just now noticed that I forget to mark morning, at the end of line 6 – corrected in the extract.
Up to this point, Frost has written an Iambic Pentameter that Shakespeare would have been recognized and accepted in Shakespeare’s day. The first four lines are strictly Iambic Pentameter. This has the effect of firmly establishing the meter of the poem. As long as Frost doesn’t vary too much, for this point on, the ear will register whatever he does as variations on an established Iambic Pentameter meter. I won’t say that Frost did this deliberately. In other poems, like The Road not Taken, he varies the metrical line from the outset. In this case, though, the effect is such that the lines stabilize the metrical pattern early on.
Ice-Storms and often (in line 6) are trochaic feet.
With line 7 one finds a nice metrical effect with As the |breeze ri|ses. The spondaic foot has the effect of reproducing the rising breeze – breeze being more emphasized than the, and ris-es being more emphasized than breeze. Unlike some, I won’t go so far as to say that Frost toiled for hours producing this effect, but he was probably aware that the natural progression of the language nicely fit the metrical pattern.
In his book on blank verse called Blank Verse (which I’ve been meaning to review) Robert B. Shaw provides his own scansion of this passage (or a part of it.)
Here it is:
It’s gratifying to see that we mostly agree. Where our scansion doesn’t match is probably because I’ve followed Frost’s own reading. For instance, Frost gives greater emphasis to the word shed than Shaw does and gives less emphasis to crust (in snow-crust) than Shaw. I wouldn’t call Shaw’s reading incorrect, simply different than Frost (because Shaw’s reading recognizes the overall iambic pattern – unlike the scansion of The Road Not Taken at Frostfriends.org – which I criticized elsewhere.
More to the point, the story which meter tells reinforces the content of the poem. The poem, which up to this point has been fairly standard iambic pentameter, disrupts the metrical flow just as the rising breezes disrupt the tree’s “crystal shells”. The dactylic first foot Shat-ter-ing – one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, upsets the ear’s expectation, disrupting the iambic flow. The final foot of this line – |the snow-crust – is called a heavy feminine ending. Whereas the usual iambic feminine ending ends with an unstressed syllable, a heavy feminine ending ends with an intermediate or strongly stressed syllable. This variant foot was wildly popular in Jacobean theater. Frost probably could have avoided it; but the use of it serves to further disrupt the metrical pattern – further mirroring the disruption of the “crystal shells”. All of this is an effect that is hard, and in some ways impossible, to reproduce in Free Verse.
The next line is one of the more metrically interesting:
I can’t tell, but Shaw either has forgotten to mark the second syllable of heaven, or he has chosen to elide heaven such that it reads heav‘n – making it a one syllable word. Frost pronounces it fully as two syllables. So… what makes this final foot interesting is in what to call it. Strictly speaking, it’s a tertius paeon – two unstressed followed by a stressed and unstressed syllable. Another way to read the line would be as a long line or hexameter line.
Hexameter lines can be an acceptable variant with an Iambic Pentameter pattern, but with a pyrrhic (weak) fifth foot and a trochaic (inverted) final foot, the feet seem too weak to support a hexameter reading (the extra foot). My preference is to read a line as being pentameter (having five feet) unless a line’s “feet” are strong enough to support hexameter.
Frost’s metrical habit is to see anapestic feet as a perfectly acceptable variant to iambic feet – frequently calling them loose iambs. With that in mind, my own reading is that Frost has substituted an anapestic feminine ending for an iambic feminine ending. To my ear, it’s an elegant variation – and not one found prior to Frost (to my knowledge). Frost will use this foot again later in the poem.
Of interest in the next two lines are the elision of They are to They’re. Some metrists, like George T. Wright, are criticized for too readily reducing anapests to iambs by the use of elision – as if he were philosophically opposed to anapests. If the poets had meant the lines to be read as iambs, the reasoning goes, they would have written them as iambs. If you’ve read my previous posts on meter you’ll know that, if I can, I tend to elide anapests to read as iambs. I learned this technique by reading Wright’s books on meter.
I feel a little vindicated noticing that when Frost reads or recites Birches, he pronounces (elides) They are as They’re – despite the fact that he hasn’t marked them as such. (Mind you, his lines would be perfectly acceptable variants if read them as anapests.) So, I don’t make this stuff up.
A last observation on these ten lines. It is interesting to note that balance Frost establishes between standard Iambic Pentameter and variant lines. The seventh and eighth line from the extract above are varied with trochaic and anapestic feet, but notice how both these lines are balanced by perfect Iambic Pentameter lines.
More so than the meter, the next ten lines are interesting for their Frostian colloquialism. Before Frost, no 19th Century Poet (or earlier unless they were writing Drama) would have stopped the poem mid-breath to say something like: But I was going to say. Up to this point, the poem’s tone could be considered fairly traditional, but Frost, as interrupts the elevated tone with colloquial banter: broke in, all her matter-of-fact, I should prefer, fetch the cows.
Note: There’s no denying the eroticism, by today’s standards, in the lines: “Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair hair/ Before them over their heads…” I have a truffle pig’s nose for eroticism in poetry. Trust me. Read my analysis of Sidney and Dryden if you don’t believe me. However, I think it’s reading too much into this imagery if one takes it as the starting point for an erotic subtext in the entirety of the poem. Several reasons:
1.) In 1913, when this poem was published, what was tolerated in terms of sexuality and eroticism was worlds apart from now (or the Elizabethan Age for that matter). There was erotic literature, but it was very underground. Women couldn’t vote. They couldn’t swim at the beach unless they were, practically speaking, fully clothed. Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published just over twenty years later, wouldn’t be permitted on American shores for another 50 years! Doggy style was not the first thing to pop into readers’ minds when they read this (or else the poem would have been banned). Pornographic language and imagery was practically non-existent in the public sphere.
2.) Frost himself was risk averse. He didn’t achieve any real recognition until he was in his mid-forties and he would not have risked his reputation if he had thought the image was too suggestive. He was nothing if not conscious if his own image as a sort of New England farmer/poet. And there’s is simply no other precedent for this kind of suggestiveness in any of his other published poetry. There is some poetry that remained unpublished however – humorous and one step removed from bathroom graffiti. Here’s an example:
The symbol of the number ten–
The naught for girls, the one for men–
Defines how many times does one
In mathematics or in fun
Go as you might say into zero.
You ask the heroine and hero.
This was about as close as Frost got to anything “erotic”. He joked about sex, one notch above crude, or treated sexuality as a dark undertow in the lives of men and women, The Subverted Flower for example.
3.) It’s too obvious. Even in his unpublished pranks, he was indirect. No where else is Frost ever so explicit about sexuality (if one insists on interpreting the line as such). Though some interpreters will probably still make the argument, I personally don’t buy it.
In terms of meter, only the very rare 19th century (or earlier) poet would have ended a line with a trochaic foot. Frost does so with baseball in the 5th line and will do so again later in the poem. His willingness to extend variant feet into places where they hadn’t normally been helps lend his poetry a colloquial feel. Frost isn’t willing to sacrifice the “sound of sense” for the sake of meter. But he also strikes a balance. Once again, notice that he brackets this line with perfectly Iambic Pentameter lines before and after. In the 9th line, he substitues an anapestic final foot for an iambic foot – a much freer variation than used by any poet in the generation preceeding him.
I scanned Line 8 as a headless line (the initial unstressed syllable is omitted) and the third foot as anapestic – in keeping with his willingness to substitute iambs with anapests. However, one can also read the line as starting with two trochaic feet:
I’m not philosophically opposed to this reading. Two trochaic feet at the start of a line is perfectly acceptable. The reason I prefer my own reading, I suppose, is because I hear the phrasing, not as trochaic, but Iambic – One| by one | he sub-dued. This is where the art of scansion comes into play; and I’m not going to argue that my preferred reading is the right one (in this case).
Notice how Frost echoes one by one with over and over – it’s a nice touch and works within the metrical patterning he allows himself.
The next ten lines come with one metrically ambiguous line – the 6th line.
I scanned the line as follows:
This makes the line pentameter and my hunch is that this is the spirit in which Frost wrote it.I notice that in his reciting of the poem, he is careful to give carefully it’s full three syllables. However, were it not part of a well established Iambic Pentameter poem, I would be tempted to scan the line as follows:
Essentially trochaic tetrameter. Either way, the meter echoes the hesitant and careful climbing of the boy. This line, of all the lines, most threatens the Iambic Pattern and, in that respect, most draws attention to what the boy is doing – climb-ing care-fully.
Alternate Readings November 11th 2016: I’ve just been having an email exchange with the poet Annie Finch, one of the finest “formalist” poets currently writing. She has a Ph.D. and currently teaches poetry. She strongly takes issue with my reading of the line above (and the next one below) as headless (∧). For example, where I read:
(∧} And |not one |but hung limp,| not one |was left
Andnot | onebut | hung limp,| not one |was left
I’ve used gray-scale and italics to indicate the level of stress she assigns to each word. So, “not one” receives more stress than “And”, but not as much as the bolded words.
As I mentioned above, I chose to scan the poem the way Frost read it. This is not the only way to scan the poem; but since we have his recitation I thought it might be interesting to scan it the way he imagined it . Even in that respect my scansion is open to differences of opinion: Did Frost really emphasize a word as much as I’ve marked? That’s all subjective. Annie Finch’s reading, on the other hand, disregards the way Frost reads his poem. That said, I think her reading is equally valid and undoubtedly reflects the way she reads the poem. She writes:
“You mention that you based the scansion of the poem on Frost’s own recorded performance of it. I honor your interest in respecting Frost’s voice here, but this is really not a viable way to scan (his pronunciation of poems is so subjective that if scansion were dependent on the way a poem is spoken, meter would have ceased to exist long ago). “
I agree that Frost’s reading is subjective, but I’d assert that all readings are subjective and that meter has nevertheless survived, so why not inquire into Frost’s own metrical preferences? As regards that, though, Annie Finch stated her guiding principle at the outset of our exchange:
“As you will see throughout A Poet’s Craft, the SIMPLEST SCANSION IS ALWAYS BEST…” [Uppercase is her own.]
The book she refers to is her own. Her assertion that the simplest scansion is always the best leads her to write that my own scansion “is absurdly and needlessly complex.” I disagree and I don’t agree with her assertion if treated as an invariable rule (though it’s certainly useful as a guiding principle). In the case of Frost’s poem we can, at minimum, say that her “rule” leads her to read the lines counter to the way Frost reads them. Does that make her scansion wrong? No. I would, however, say that this demonstrates how scansion is less science than art. Do you care about how a poet reads his or her work? Does it matter when scanning? Does it matter if your scansion agrees with the poet’s? These questions are themselves debatable, but that they’re debatable is worth emphasizing. I don’t and would not claim that my scansion is the “correct” scansion—just my own spin on the matter. She adds:
“I notice you have marked three headless lines. I believe only one of these is a true headless line and should be scanned as such, the one that begins “one by one he subdued.” (and this also fits with the meaning of the poem at that moment–he is subduing the poem in this one act of great metrical defiance). Any other scansion distorts the line’s connection to the underlying iambic pentameter pattern, and furthermore the headless scansion is the simplest scansion of this line (by which I mean the scansion that has the fewest variations from the completely regular underlying model of iambic pentameter).
The other two lines you have marked as headless, the one beginning “and not one” and the one beginning “may no fate,” are not truly headless. A headless scansion of these two lines introduces needless complications and unnecessary variations from the underlying iambic pentameter pattern. In the “may no fate” line, the only justification I can see for your headless scansion is that it avoids a trochee in the third foot (“FULly”) but that trochee is not a problem that needs to be avoided, because there is a caesura immediately after it followed by a four-syllable word that creates two of the most unrelentingly iambic feet in the poem. Furthermore, the trochee “fully” in my opinion deserves to be scanned as such because it is a beautifully expressive prosodic example of willfullness and Frost deserves full credit for this magnificent piece of metrical variation. And finally, I feel it should be scanned to show the trochee because the trochee is I believe one of only two trochees in the poem that does not occur at a line-beginning or after a very strong caesura–and both of these wrenching, challenging prosodic moments express powerful verbal meanings of imposing will and overcoming the restrictions of reality (the other is “over” in the third foot of the line beginning “by riding them down”).“
I think the risk here is that she’s associating her own aesthetics with Frost’s. In other words: ‘My reading, not yours, is the one that credits his “magnificent piece of metrical variation”‘. The problem with this sort of assertion is that it’s a logical fallacy, somewhat like the “No True Scottsman” fallacy in the following sense: “No true appreciation of Frost’s metrical art would read these lines other than the way I’ve read them.” Needless to say, I disagree. I could just as easily make the same claims for my own readings, that they are necessary because they uniquely capture Frost’s “beautifully expressive” prosody, but that would be just as fallacious. Further, I certainly don’t think trochaic feet are to be avoided. My own reading, after all, includes a trochee. She writes in closing:
“And once you admit the poem really is in iambic pentameter, then any scansion of any line in the poem needs to use that as a starting point. The scansion needs to show how Frost was following, when he was following, the basic rules of iambic pentameter. If he wasn’t following them, then show that he wasn’t. But that is only possible when the scansion itself can be trusted to follow the rules.“
I would dispute her characterization of my reading as not showing how Frost follows the basic rules of Iambic Pentameter. A headless line is a variant foot and very much a normal variant among those “rules” that define Iambic Pentameter.
All that said, I include her comments to demonstrate how contentious these matters can be. (Admittedly, it’s a bit like arguing over how many grains of salt are in a teaspoon.) I also want to stress that I consider her reading equally valid. I’m of the belief that scansion, within limits, may be subject to interpretation. Just as there’s often no one way to interpret a poem, there is sometimes more than one way to scan a poem. But I invite readers to make up their own mind.
The next two lines follow a more normative pattern with trochaic and anapestic variant feet.
The most elegantly metrical lines follow with the 9th & 10th line of the extract:
Then he flungoutward, feet first, with a swish Kicking his way down through the air to the ground
The spondee of flung out beautifully reinforces the image by disrupting the metrical pattern, as does feet first. Kick-ing is further reinforced and emphasized by being a trochaic first foot. The word down, as Frost recites it, trochaically disrupts the meter again, more so than if it had been iambic.
Birches: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations.” This line is perfect iambic pentameter, with an extra metrical (feminine) ending.
Their statement is incorrect. This line is not perfect iambic pentameter. A perfectly iambic pentameter line would not have a feminine ending (an amphibrach) in the final foot. It would have an iambic foot (if it were “perfect” iambic pentameter). The correct thing to say would have been: This is a perfectly acceptable variant with an iambic pentameter pattern.
Notice the trochaic final foot in the 9th line – a thoroughly modern variant.
As with the other lines, I scanned the 10th line as headless to preserve an Iambic scansion and because I thought it most accurately reflected Frost’s own reading of the poem. (That is, the feeling is Iambic rather than trochaic. ) While scansion doesn’t, by in large, reflect phrasing, there is a certain balance to be struck; and I have tried to do so in these lines.
The fourth line is the most metrically divergent. I have scanned the line as Iambic Tetrameter with an anapestic feminine ending. The alternative would be to read it as follows:
If this is what Frost imagined, then my own feeling is that the scansion fails as such. The pyrrhic fourth foot is exceptionally weak, even for pyrrhic feet, while a trochaic final foot seems inadequate to restore the underlying Iambic Pentameter pattern after such a weak fourth foot. Given precedence for an anapestic feminine foot earlier in the poem, and in the final line, the line makes much more sense if read as Tetrameter with an anapestic feminine foot. I don’t see this as being outside the bounds of an acceptable variant. Interestingly, the line remains decasyllabic so that the ear doesn’t so much perceive a short line as a a variant line.
This line has been preceded by some richly varied lines. As is Frost’s habit, he grounds the meter with the iambically regular 6th and 7th line. To that end (in his recitation) Frost effectively reads Toward as a monosyllabic word, emphasizing the return to Iambic Pentameter.
The closing two lines are conservative in their variants. Frost has reaffirmed the Iambic Pentameter and he’s not going to disrupt it again. The message, at this point, is what matters. The meter reinforces the calm and measured summation. In the second to last line, the only variant is an anapestic fourth foot.
With the last line, the temptation is to read the first foot as One could| do worse, but Frost, in reciting the poem, once again reaffirms the iambic meter by emphasizing could. This sort of metrical emphasis, emphasizing words that might not normally be emphasized while de-emphasizing others that are more normally emphasized, is a Frostian specialty made possible by his use of meter. Free Verse can’t reproduce it. The last line, as Frost reads it, is regularly iambic until the last foot, at which point he elegantly closes with an anapestic feminine ending.
The final foot, with its anapestic swing and feminine falling off, could almost be said to imitate the swinging of the birch.