Poem of the Week: ‘Birches’ by Robert Frost
Since Mother’s Day is right around the corner, this week I’ll share some verse by a poet my mom loves: Robert Frost. Here’s a bit of Frost’s “Birches:”
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,
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.
This poem, along with two others which appeared in the same issue, marked the first time Frost published his writing in The Atlantic. But it was not the first time he’d tried; that attempt, as Peter Davison recalled, occurred three years earlier:
Sometime in 1912, before Robert Frost made his famous leap to “live under thatch” in England, where he would become known as a poet, he sent some of his poems to Ellery Sedgwick, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and in due course received a personal reply that read, “We are sorry that we have no place in The Atlantic Monthly for your vigorous verse.” Frost’s submission included some of his finest early poems—“Reluctance,” for example.
It was only after Frost published his first two books of poetry in England and began attracting acclaim as “a new American voice” that Sedgwick reconsidered, and offered to purchase several of Frost’s poems sight unseen. And so “Birches,” “The Road Not Taken,” and “The Sound of Trees” were published in our August 1915 issue.
These first poems were accompanied by a critical essay on Frost written by Edward Garnett. Apparently oblivious to Frost’s history with The Atlantic, Garnett described his reaction to first reading the poet’s collection, North of Boston, like this:
I read it, and reread it. It seemed to me that this poet was destined to take a permanent place in American literature. I asked myself why this book was issued by an English and not by an American publisher. And to this question I have found no answer.
Despite Sedgwick’s initial ambivalence, of course, Frost did take a permanent place in the country’s literature—and in its national spirit. In a speech at a ground-breaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College (later printed in our February 1964 issue), President John F. Kennedy hailed the late poet as a powerful American voice:
Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. …
When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement. The artists, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In pursuing his perceptions of reality he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet, in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life.
Over the course of his illustrious career, 28 more of Frost’s poems appeared in The Atlantic. “Reluctance,” included in that first rejected submission, never did—but you can read it here.