Art

Frost's "Birches"

The philosophy articulated in "Birches" poses no threat to popular values or beliefs, and it is so appealingly affirmative that many readers have treasured the poem as a masterpiece. Among Frost's most celebrated works, perhaps only "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" ranks ahead of it. Yet to critics like Brooks and Squires, the persona's philosophical stance in "Birches" is a serious weakness.

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The didactic and philosophical element that some critics have attacked strikes others as the very core of Frost's virtue.

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Perhaps impartial observers can accept the notion that "Birches" is neither as bad as its harshest opponents suggest nor as good as its most adoring advocates claim.

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"Birches" . . . contains three fairly lengthy descriptions that do not involve unusual perspectives. In fact, the most original and distinctive vision in the poem--the passage treating the ice on the trees (ll. 5-14)--is undercut both by the self-consciousness of its final line ("You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen") and by the two much more conventionally perceived environments that follow it: the rural boyhood of the swinger of birches (ll. 23-40) and the "pathless wood," which represents life's "considerations" (ll. 44-47). As a result, the poem's ardent concluding lines--its closing pronouncements on life, death, and human aspiration--do not arise from a particular experience. Instead, they are presented as doctrines that we must accept or reject on the basis of our credence in the speaker as a wise countryman whose familiarity with birch trees, ice storms, and pathless woods gives him authority as a philosopher.

Since in "Birches" the natural object--tree, ice crystal, pathless wood, etc.--functions as proof of the speaker's rusticity, Frost has no need for extraordinary perspectives, and therefore the poem does little to convince us that an "experience," to use [Robert] Langbaum's wording, "is really taking place, that the object is seen and not merely remembered from a public or abstract view of it." This is not to deny that the poem contains some brilliant descriptive passages (especially memorable are the clicking, cracking, shattering ice crystals in lines 7-11 and the boy's painstaking climb and sudden, exhilarating descent in lines 35-40), and without doubt, the closing lines offer an engaging exegesis of swinging birches as a way of life. But though we learn a great deal about this speaker's beliefs and preferences, we find at last that he has not revealed himself as profoundly as does the speaker in "After Apple-Picking." It is remarkable that the verb "to like," which does not appear in Frost's non-dramatic poetry prior to "Birches," is used three times in this poem: "I like to think" (l. 3); "I'd like to get away" (l. 48); and "I'd like to go" (l. 54). The speaker also tells us what he would "prefer" (l. 23), "dream of" (l. 42), and "wish" (l. 51). But while his preferences are generally appealing, and while they seem intellectually justified, they are not poetically justified in the sense that Langbaum suggests when he discusses the "extraordinary perspective" as a "sign that the experience is really taking place": "The experience has validity just because it is dramatized as an event which we must accept as having taken place, rather than formulated as an idea with which we must agree or disagree" (p. 43).

"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. The act of repairing the wall and trying to reason with the crusty farmer, the termination of the harvest and the preparation for a winter's rest, the vagrant woodland ramble and the discovery of the perplexing woodpile--all these are events that we indeed "accept as having taken place."

Unlike the meditative lyrics Frost selected for North of Boston, 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. Yes, the speaker has observed ice storms that bend the birches "down to stay" (l. 4); he has "learned all there is / To learn" about swinging birches (ll. 32-33); and he has struggled through the "considerations" of life's "pathless wood" (ll. 43-44). But the relationship of these experiences to his present utterance--the poem--is left unclear. We would be more willing to accept what Squires calls a "contradictory jumble" of images and ideas if we were convinced (as Eliot and Pound often convince us) that the diverse materials had coalesced in the speaker's mind. 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.

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It may seem arbitrary to press too hard the issue of honesty in this poem. Art, after all, relies on fantasy and deception. Yet there are different types of fantasy and many motives for deception. If we are confident that an artist has kept faith with some personal vision or inner self, we can accept falsification of many things. When Frost presents himself as a farm worker, for instance a mower wielding his scythe or apple picker resting his weary body--the fantasy seems sincere and convincing. When we consider Frost's career and personal history, however, we may wonder about his motives in falsifying the character of his childhood. The resulting images lack originality and inspiration. Surely "Birches" contains some vivid and forceful passages, but when a line or phrase gives us too strong a sense of the poet's calculated effort to validate his speaker's rusticity, the spell of the poem, its incantatory charm and imaginative vision, is threatened. Fortunately, in "Birches" this threat is hardly noticeable, certainly not overwhelming or repellent, unless we want it to be.

[Excerpted from a longer analysis]

from Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist. Copyright © 1979 by Princeton UP.

Christopher J. MacGowan: On "The Great Figure"

In his autobiography Williams links the incident that produced the poem to a visit to Hartley's studio on Fifteenth Street, repeating the poem's association with Hartley in a 1956 interview with Emily Farnham. (Hartley's correspondence narrows down the probable date of his visit--he lived at 337 W. 15th street in the second half of 1919, where McAlmon also rented a room.)

Williams writes in the Autobiography:

Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it.

Before continuing his account of the visit, Williams breaks his narrative to insert a later reminiscence. He recalls standing on a station platform with Hartley

when an express train roared by right before our faces--crashing through making up time in a cloud of dust and sand so that we had to put up our hands to protect our faces.     As it passed Marsden turned and said to me, "That's what we all want to be, isn't it, Bill?" (Auto, 172)

The juxtaposition of the express train anecdote clearly associates the train, the speeding fire engine with its figure 5, and the painter Williams was about to visit. The connection is reinforced by the apparently casual reference that transforms Hartley and his studio into "his number." In an unpublished letter to Henry Wells in 1955 Williams pointed to this larger meaning, explaining, "In the case of The Great Figure I think you missed the irony of the word great, the contemptuous feeling I had at that moment for all 'frear figures' [sic] in public life compared with that figure 5 riding in state with full panoply down the streets of the city ignored by everyone but the artist."

By alluding to his painter friend in terms of a numerical figure set against a dynamic, colorful background, Williams matched the strategy of Hartley's 1913-15 Berlin canvases. These abstract works, painted under the impact of his meeting with Kandinsky and Marc, fuse military, sexual, and numerical symbols into what Hartley called "consultations of the eye ... my notion of the purely pictural." As with Williams's figure 5, the numbers scattered across these canvases reflect not only the modernist aesthetic behind their composition, but also an esoteric quality peculiar to the scene or person abstractly portrayed. Many of the paintings gain further numerical associations through such abstractionist titles as Painting No. 1, Painting No. 2, etc. Most of the works, including Painting No. 5 which Williams may have had specifically in mind, are dominated by the military colors of white, black, red, and gold, mirrored in "The Great Figure" by "lights," "dark," "red," and "gold."

Both Hartley and Williams emphasized their strategy of capturing the 'immediate.' Hartley insisted upon the spontaneity of his Berlin compositions, declaring, "The forms are only those which I have observed casually from day to day." Williams similarly asserts that "The Great Figure" is the record of an "impression ... sudden and forceful," despite the variant printed versions of his poem, and the manuscript evidence of their careful revision.

Writing about Hartley five years after his friend's death in 1943, Williams singled out the Berlin pictures as the painter's most significant accomplishment. He could have seen the works at Stieglitz's 291 gallery in Spring, 1916 or January 1917, or at Hartley's studio, since many were unsold and remained in the painter's possession. Williams's sense of the dynamism, violence, and color of the paintings corresponds to the setting of "The Great Figure".

Hartley knew Paris, and, more important, the Berlin of just before the First World War and painted there ... abstract furies, close to the eye, pressing as it were on the eye, of great significance and beauty. . . . I have seen many attempts to equal them with their bold strokes of primary colors, exploding bombs, the arching trajectories of rockets.... It was a phenomenon unequalled in the history of art. If for nothing else these paintings of this period mark Marsden Hartley as one of the most powerful figures in American painting.

In the context of the Hartley association, "The Great Figure" achieves a level of meaning not noted by Williams's commentators. Rod Townley finds the poem's "tense / unheeded" to be "weak," while James Breslin claims of these lines that "Williams, uncertain that the object can speak for itself ... speaks for it." But the lines are in fact crucial, for like the figure, painter and poet are also "tense / unheeded." "The Great Figure" becomes a type of the artist isolated by an America inimical to its vital, creative talents. The painter still suffered poverty and neglect despite the "phenomenon" of his Berlin pictures, and Williams's work was still buried in little magazines and slim, self-financed volumes.

Yet the poet is about to visit the painter, and the poem finally affirms the hope that America's "unheeded" artists can support each other. As the final poem of Sour Grapes, "The Great Figure" qualifies the volume's "disappointment, sorrow." Sour Grapes fits into that pattern frequently structuring Williams's work: a despairing "descent," from which the poet emerges envisioning a rebirth of creative activity through the power of a rejuvenated imagination. But the hope that this poem's synthesis of poetry and painting represents--like the hope of "unity" that Contact represented--proved vain. In the summer of 1921 Hartley joined McAlmon and the other expatriates in Europe.

From William Carlos Williams: The Visual Arts Background. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Christopher J. MacGowan.