Frost`s "Birches" and Modern Poetry

Modernism in Poetry
H. D.
Wallace Stevens
Ezra Pound
T. S. Eliot
Modernity vs. Modernism
Begins as early as the age of
Shakespeare and Machiavelli
(the late 1500s to the early 1600s).
To speak correctly,
we should speak of things
that happen in our day
as being “contemporary” to ourselves.
“Modern” does not exactly mean “today”.
Modern in Relation to Poetry
Refers to characteristics such as
A break with traditional forms
A sense of creating a world as we perceive it
A sense of historical discontinuity (break with
A sense of alienation, despair and loss.
Modernism in Poetry
Rejects history and its society
Rejects traditional values and assumptions
Rejects the rhetoric that promotes the values and
Elevates the individual and inner being over the
social human being
Prefers the unconscious to the self-conscious
It is a reaction against realism and naturalism
From holman and Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. “Modern.” Fifth Edition.
What does that mean for the
“Birches” by Frost
“13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace
“Oread” by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)
They feel different and are different.
First: Frost
Frost writes at the same general time as the
Yet he is more traditional in many ways
The form is more traditional
He provides a context for the meaning of his
Mending Wall
“Mending Wall” deals with some modern
questions such as dealing with one's neighbors
and society.
The poem, though, has a setting and something of
a beginning, middle and end.
We can argue about the “message”, but there
seems to be a message.
Also deals with “modern” issues of wanting to
escape a harsh world.
The poem has
Context for meaning (a speaker reflecting on
swinging birches and the imagination)
A seeming message rather than just an image
Birches: Meaning and Context
We are into the poetry now, so let's go line by line
Birches is on page 399
For the easiest grasp of this poem, just follow me
step by step, and then I'll post a video to recap
First six lines
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As Ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning . . .
Note that Frost starts with what he would like to
think. He is reacting against realism and
naturalism. . . . London would just freeze the trees
and the boy. Frost wants to think happy thoughts.
Lines 7 – 18 (see book)
The lines are beautiful but factual.
The ice storm is really what bends the trees.
Yet, Frost keeps heaven in our minds with
The sun's warmth
Crystal shells
The inner dome of heaven.
Different from London
Frost refers to the ice melting and crashing down
from the trees:
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.
Think back to the snow falling from the tree in
London's story and how differently the description
felt. Here we are reminded of something higher.
Lines 19 – 41 (see book)
Frost's speaker returns to fanciful explanations:
The trees bend like girls drying their hair.
Or, as he would prefer, they are bent by a boy
who had learned to climb as far to the top as
possible before returning to earth.
Frost is not a romantic
Frost is between the thorough modernists and
the romantics, and reacts against the realists,
while not ignoring reality.
He is not a romantic because he acknowledges
scientific fact. He says,
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm . . .(21-22).
He is almost poking fun
at writers like London
with his capital T in Truth in line 21.
Is scientific fact the Truth for Frost?
Is there nothing transcendent?
The rest of the poem
seems to hint at a higher truth
that the poet reaches for.
Lines 41 – 50 (see book)
The speaker says he once was a swinger of
birches and wishes to be again.
What does he mean?
Does he want to be a child and climb trees?
In what context does he want to climb?
When life is like a pathless wood
When scientific fact (cobwebs and twigs in the
face) are a pain
That makes no sense
He wants to climb trees to get away from twigs
and cobwebs!
NO! He wants to get away from earth awhile
Here climbing the tree means more than
climbing a tree (or it is really ridiculous because
he wants to climb trees to get out of the woods).
When the “factual” stuff of life gets to be too
much he wants to get away from “earth.”
Lines 49 - End
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.
The speaker wants a way to escape to something
higher (like heaven), but not to die. He seeks
some insight or inspiration that is toward heaven.
Poets on Poetry
As you reflect on the poem, what are you
Are you distracted by children, bills, the washing
machine, or your phone?
IN the poem Frost lets us climb toward heaven
and BE the boy swinging the birches IN THE
If we can find time, quiet and space,
we can escape with Frost
into the “heavens”
or into the world of the ice-storm,
or the boy in the country playing.
Frost on “swinging birches”
Creating or reading and contemplating poetry are
ways of climbing the birch tree
We transcend the world of matter of fact and find
some higher truth (imagination or inspiration)
Truth exists beyond the human being
Still, earth is the right place for human beings
Frost differs from realists/naturalists
Finds truth in
something more than
Reduces the
experience of “the
man” to a merely
natural experience
Frost is like the modernist poets
In his rejection of naturalism and realism.
Yet, he acknowledges the realities of nature.
Unlike the Romantics,
Frost presents a nature
that has twigs and spiderwebs
that hurt one's face.
Frost NOT a modernist . . .?
Frost, though, is clearly different from
Wallace Stevens and H.D.
Turn to
“13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
and “Oread”
(continued on next power point)
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