Robert Frost’s “Birches” has been a long time favorite of mine, probably because it conjures up some special childhood memories of swinging on birches.
“So was I once myself a swinger of birches/ And so I dream of going back to be”
But it is more than nostalgic verse. At one point Frost states, “ But I was going to say when Truth broke in”. As he swings between joys experienced, the realities of being earth-bound, and the mysteries of life, Frost ignites imaginations, ushers us back to treasured places, and gives a nod to ultimate things.
He had the tremendous gift of transforming simple, memorable experiences into profound thoughts. This poem about wistful remembrances of climbing slender birches to their tops and swinging gently back to ground is tense with yearning for innocence and an unencumbered youthful enthusiasm in a world weighed down by adult responsibilities, drudgery and restrictive realities which have subdued his spirit and bent his dreams like the ice-storms have the birches. He longed for the thrill and resilience of his boyish aspirations, discoveries and conquests.
” But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay/ As ice-storms do.”
“And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed/ So low for long, they never right themselves”
We easily identify with being overwhelmed, unsure or directionless and wanting to walk away, wishing for a fresh start, fantasizing new beginnings, wanting rebirth. “It’s when I’m weary of considerations/ And life is too much like a pathless wood” “I’d like to get away from earth awhile/ And then come back to it and begin over.”
This is escapism at its best! We don’t have do-overs or reprieves from the past and are familiar with self doubt and dreams of change and breaking free. But our poet is ambivalent. He realizes life is fragile and becomes resigned to whatever his lot is and the good that it holds. His religious thoughts seem tentative, filled with the ambiguity that pervades the tenor of the poem. Perhaps superstitiously, he fears some sovereign being or fate might take his imaginations and his indecisiveness at face value and “snatch him away. “May no fate willfully misunderstand me/ And half grant what I wish and snatch me away/Not to return.”
Even giants of faith entertain doubts about God’s character. St. Augustine said, “Doubt is but another element of faith.” Walk through Genesis with Abraham or through Exodus in Moses shoes, sit in the ash heap with Job, follow the trajectories of the nation of Israel, hide in a cave with Elijah, anguish with the Psalmist, stand with the Thomas before Jesus, agonize and weep with the disciples at Jesus’ tomb, tremble in despair with Martin Luther, speak with C.S. Lewis or read a despondent Mother Theresa’s letters,.
We doubt what our senses can not verify. Yet, we all hold beliefs which have limited proofs and therefore uncertainties. Whether one does not believe or is uncertain about the existence of God or whether one believes in His existence, no amount of philosophical or theological hubris is without moments of tentativeness. Frost seems to hold onto, or at least doesn’t dismiss, the reality of a sovereign who has authority over life and death.
Like the ice storms bending the birches, life’s trials and doubt can be spiritually debilitating, but proactively preparing for those insults holds one up in disorienting times.(Ephesians 6:11-13)
The Christian faith is deeply rooted in the person of Jesus Christ and the revealed Word of God. Disciplining oneself in Scripture meditation; considering God’s character and Jesus’ life and teachings as God’s expressed love to us; not forsaking worship experience and practices; utilizing liturgy, catechisms, covenants, hymns, and faith statements; fellowshipping and counselling with those one trusts; praying; and just persevering will carry one through the dark night of faltering faith, rejuvenating one’s spirit to spring back to joyful heights again.