VCCS Litonline Introduction to Literature
English 112 (English Composition II)

page 8 of 14

Tone in the Poem

The student wrote--



The poem communicates an attitude about imagination and reality. The choice of certain words and certain details makes it clear that the speaker prefers imagination but is aware of reality.

Initially, the forest scene describes "crystal shells/ Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust--/ Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away." The words "shattering and avalanching" give the feeling of calamity and perhaps fear or sorrow. A disturbance in the universe is suggested by the "heaps of broken glass" that make it seem as if "the inner dome of heaven had fallen." Since Truth is linked to the ice storm, the speaker sees that the reality is that ice storms have bent down the birches.

There is a turning point that informs the reader that the villain "Truth" has butted into the poem. The speaker, who was getting whimsical and nostalgic about girls drying their long hair "in the sun," admits that "Truth broke in/ With all her matter-of-fact about the ice storm." But now it's imagination's turn. The speaker's huffiness about truth pushes reality aside for the more refreshing view of imagination.

The comforting image of the boy who "one by one . . . subdued his father's trees" pits art against the destructive chaos of reality. The boy refines his art of imagination by persistence--

And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn . . . .

This scene is softer than the scene of the ice storms in lines 5 - 15. But the point of this opposition between imagination and reality, the boy vs. the ice storm, doesn't come until years later at the end of the poem.

The frustration of life sometimes makes it "too much like a pathless wood." After disclosing that he himself has been "a swinger of birches" the speaker confesses that he yearns to return to those days in his imagination to get away from the frustrations, the shatterings of real life. The last line, "One could do worse than to be a swinger of birches," sounds relaxed, thoughtful, resolved. After having taken a mental vacation into the forest, the narrator comes back to reality refreshed, ready for love and ready to face reality again.

Isn't this one purpose of all art--paintings, movies, literature, sculpture, music--to refresh us by drawing on our imaginations so that we can use our dreams or our memories to survive day-to-day, matter-of-fact reality? "Birches" is no ode to winter; it is more a tribute to the power of imagination.

Your turn to respond--

Evaluate the Student's Vocabulary for Describing Tone.

typehand.gif (8738 bytes)Analyzing tone requires having the words to characterize
selected phrases from the poem that show an attitude, or
emotion. Does this student have those words? If you were the editor for this essay, what praise would you give for this analysis of tone in connection with the theme while leaving this section as is, or what changes would you suggest to the author?

(Click here for a hint on re-opening a word processor.)


Tone, a subtle but important concept, portrays the poet's apparent attitude. In this case, the student closely allies the speaker and the poet, with good reason since she sees the poem as a comment on the purpose of art, not as a quaint landscape painting. In fact, at the end of this segment of her essay, she deliberately rejects the simplistic way of reading Frost as a "nature poet." So writing about literature requires using such techniques of persuasive writing as rejecting opposing views.

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Technical Reminder: When quoting part of a poem during a paragraph, mark the line break that occurs in the poem with a slash ( / ), as in the second paragraph of the excerpt above.

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