One of my favorite poems is “Birches” by Robert Frost:
"When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do…"1
Frost imagines the weeping birches as the result of some boy’s play. But he knows better. Fun-loving boys, swinging on birches, don’t subdue them; ice storms do.
"But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer."
Frost has been considering literal birches and boys, but clearly he is starting to see something deeper and more significant in this scene. The birches and boys speak to something else.
What exactly? I don’t know. Freedom? Risk? Innocence? Growing up? Conquest?
Frost does not flatten the imagery to any one meaning. He just lets it hit us. This is one of the joys of literature and poetry: it can mean many things at once, speaking to us all in different ways, in ways that 1 + 1 = 2 does not.
The poem ends like this (and it’s too beautiful not to quote in its entirety):
"So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
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.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches."
Frost is not talking about birches anymore. And yet he is.
The first line in this section is probably literal: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches.” Frost probably swung on a birch or two growing up.
But in the very next line, we’ve probably moved to metaphor: “And so I dream of going back to be.” He is not talking about literally swinging on birches. He seems to be talking about a return to the freedom and innocence that has been dancing around behind this imagery all along.
By the end, Frost is talking about some heavenly birch (“I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree, //And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk //Toward heaven”).
This interplay of real and imagined, literal and metaphorical, is part of the wonder of poetry. Words can do this. They can hold more than one meaning and at the same time. Bent birches can be bent birches and also be metaphors for triumphant freedom , innocence, and courage.
This interplay is so common in writing. I would guess it has been there as long as there has been literature. But we sometimes forget about this dynamic when we read the Bible.
We want something to be literal or metaphorical, not both. But we forget that oftentimes writers dance with the two, in the same moment, and the Bible poets are no different.
The serpent will strike the heel of Adam and Eve’s offspring, and the offspring will crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). These are literal things. Snakes literally bite people’s heels. People literally crush snakes. Yet, we have drifted also into metaphor. The serpent/satan will oppose the offspring in all kinds of ways, besides literal fangs, and the offspring will defeat this evil far beyond stepping on snake skulls (e.g., Revelation 20:2).
Before the Messiah arrives, Elijah will come (Malachi 4:5). Elijah was a literal, specific person. But Jesus tells us the Elijah to come was, in fact, John the Baptist (Matthew 11:14). This interpretation tells us the prophesied Elijah to come was something beyond literal: an office, a spirit, a role (Luke 1:17).
I would think most people intuit this kind of thing as they read scripture. But where this gets tricky is with prophecies yet unfulfilled.
Today, I read Jeremiah 32. In this chapter, though Israel is afflicted, Jeremiah prophecies hope. He says the Lord says, “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul”(Jeremiah 32:41, ESV).
When I heard the part about “land,” I had a “Birches” moment. “Are we talking about literal land or has the land come to mean more?” Are we talking about literally swinging on birches, or are we talking about the spirit of swinging on birches? Are we talking about literal land? Or are we talking about the spirit behind the land: God’s presence, blessing, and abundance?
Now, I am not trying to make a point about Jeremiah 32. I have not studied it enough to have a conviction. But my point is that the Lord via Jeremiah need not necessarily be speaking literally. It could be an Elijah moment. I could be a birches moment.
What should we make of this literal-metaphor observation?
I would suggest wonder, humility, and watchfulness.
Wonder. Poetry and literature in the Bible is amazing. We should delight in the aesthetics, and not reduce it all to mathematical finitude. And God ordained that much of scripture would be written in this wonderful way. What a fascinating thought. There must be something to it. Let’s embrace that.
Humility. We should practice humble hermeneutics. Certain scriptures may have multiple layers of fulfillment and implication. Let’s not assume we have it all figured out.
Watchfulness. All of this should lead us to be watchful. The ambiguity invites us to lean in and meditate. It is like a whisper that makes us crane our necks and turn our heads to hear better. If the Lord spelled everything out down to the minute, we would be arrogant and lazy, plotting our repentance to coincide with his timing. But the mystery should make us keep watch.
So, live in the poetry. A rose can be a rose and not a rose, and simultaneously. Live the questions (Rilke). The Lord will provide understanding.