I taught Robert Frost’s poems for many years, including “Birches.” While I was familiar with birch trees and thought I understood the poem, I was taken aback on a recent drive through southern Connecticut. We had several snow and ice storms in the last three weeks, and all along the highway there were hundreds of young birch trees, bent over from the weight.
Suddenly, I recalled Frost’s description of the trees:
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.
I realized that he was being precise in his image of the trees and their spindly branches with just the beginnings of leaves. They did indeed look like the long hair of girls thrown over their heads to dry. I recalled my own years(pre blow dryers) of drying my long hair, occasionally in the sun. I knew that Frost had first seen some girl drying her hair and then seen the trees, making a visual connection.
The longer I live in New England, the more clearly I see the meaning of some of Frost’s lines. I was always “outside” his verse living in Oregon. Now, from the “inside” I connect even more strongly with his poetry. And I am reminded how often I bring limited experience to literature, appreciating it nonetheless, but missing some of its richness because it is based on places “I have never traveled.”