Wild Grapes (1942)
What tree may not the fig be gathered from?
The grape may not be gathered from the birch?
It’s all you know the grape, or know the birch.
As a girl gathered from the birch myself
Equally with my weight in grapes, one autumn,
I ought to know what tree the grape is fruit of.
I was born, I suppose, like anyone,
And grew to be a little boyish girl
My brother could not always leave at home.
But that beginning was wiped out in fear
The day I swung suspended with the grapes,
And was come after like Eurydice
And brought down safely from the upper regions;
And the life I live now’s an extra life
I can waste as I please on whom I please.
So if you see me celebrate two birthdays,
And give myself out of two different ages,
One of them five years younger than I look-
One day my brother led me to a glade
Where a white birch he knew of stood alone,
Wearing a thin head-dress of pointed leaves,
And heavy on her heavy hair behind,
Against her neck, an ornament of grapes.
Grapes, I knew grapes from having seen them last year.
One bunch of them, and there began to be
Bunches all round me growing in white birches,
The way they grew round Leif the Lucky’s German;
Mostly as much beyond my lifted hands, though,
As the moon used to seem when I was younger,
And only freely to be had for climbing.
My brother did the climbing; and at first
Threw me down grapes to miss and scatter
And have to hunt for in sweet fern and hardhack;
Which gave him some time to himself to eat,
But not so much, perhaps, as a boy needed.
So then, to make me wholly self-supporting,
He climbed still higher and bent the tree to earth
And put it in my hands to pick my own grapes.
‘Here, take a tree-top, I’ll get down another.
Hold on with all your might when I let go.’
I said I had the tree. It wasn’t true.
The opposite was true. The tree had me.
The minute it was left with me alone
It caught me up as if I were the fish
And it the fishpole. So I was translated
To loud cries from my brother of ‘Let go!
Don’t you know anything, you girl? Let go!’
But I, with something of the baby grip
Acquired ancestrally in just such trees
When wilder mothers than our wildest now
Hung babies out on branches by the hands
To dry or wash or tan, I don’t know which,
(You’ll have to ask an evolutionist)-
I held on uncomplainingly for life.
My brother tried to make me laugh to help me.
‘What are you doing up there in those grapes?
Don’t be afraid. A few of them won’t hurt you.
I mean, they won’t pick you if you don’t them.’
Much danger of my picking anything!
By that time I was pretty well reduced
To a philosophy of hang-and-let-hang.
‘Now you know how it feels,’ my brother said,
‘To be a bunch of fox-grapes, as they call them,
That when it thinks it has escaped the fox
By growing where it shouldn’t-on a birch,
Where a fox wouldn’t think to look for it-
And if he looked and found it, couldn’t reach it-
Just then come you and I to gather it.
Only you have the advantage of the grapes
In one way: you have one more stem to cling by,
And promise more resistance to the picker.’
One by one I lost off my hat and shoes,
And still I clung. I let my head fall back,
And shut my eyes against the sun, my ears
Against my brother’s nonsense; ‘Drop,’ he said,
‘I’ll catch you in my arms. It isn’t far.’
(Stated in lengths of him it might not be.)
‘Drop or I’ll shake the tree and shake you down.’
Grim silence on my part as I sank lower,
My small wrists stretching till they showed the banjo strings.
‘Why, if she isn’t serious about it!
Hold tight awhile till I think what to do.
I’ll bend the tree down and let you down by it.’
I don’t know much about the letting down;
But once I felt ground with my stocking feet
And the world came revolving back to me,
I know I looked long at my curled-up fingers,
Before I straightened them and brushed the bark off.
My brother said: ‘Don’t you weigh anything?
Try to weigh something next time, so you won’t
Be run off with by birch trees into space.’
It wasn’t my not weighing anything
So much as my not knowing anything-
My brother had been nearer right before.
I had not taken the first step in knowledge;
I had not learned to let go with the hands,
As still I have not learned to with the heart,
And have no wish to with the heart-nor need,
That I can see. The mind-is not the heart.
I may yet live, as I know others live,
To wish in vain to let go with the mind-
Of cares, at night, to sleep; but nothing tells me
That I need learn to let go with the heart.
Frost once called this poem “as near being a thing written to order as I ever got.” He said that “Susan Hayes Ward my first discoverer (1893) said I must write for her a girls companion piece to ‘Birches’ which she took to be for boys; and she would furnish me with the materials. Some years afterward to my own great surprise I found myself doing as she commanded.”
Frost adopts the voice of an older woman in this poem, an oddity among his speakers. The poem begins with two questions—“What tree may not the fig be gathered from? / The grape may not be gathered from the birch?”—and sets off from there. These questions echo Matthew 7:16 of the Bible, which asks: “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”
The speaker is a girl “gathered from a birch” who “grew to be a little boyish girl” who followed her brother about. “But that beginning was wiped out in fear” the day she swung on birches as boys do, ended up suspended from a tree bough like a grape, and “was come after like Eurydice / And brought down safely from the upper regions.” Eurydice was the wife of Orpheus, whom he failed to rescue from Hades when he looked back at her and so violated the command of Pluto on their journey back to the upper world of the living. When the girl in the poem made it back to Earth safely, she began to live “an extra life.” Now she has two lives: one she can “waste as [she] please[s] on whom [she] please[s]” and another, one five years younger.
The woman then retells a story of her youth, when her brother led her to a birch tree that was heavy with bunches of grapes. She recognizes the grapes from having seen them the year before, and soon there are bunches all around her, the “way they grew round Leif the Lucky’s German.” The reference is to the Norwegian Leif “the Lucky” Ericson, who was raised by a German and died circa 1020. He was a mariner who visited North America, possibly New England but more likely Nova Scotia, which he named Vinland after the vines he found growing there. The grapes are above the girl for her to admire, but they are inaccessible.
Here, as in Frost’s “Birches,” the boy climbs the branches of the birch until he weighs them down to meet the earth. In this case, however, the boy throws down grapes from the tree at his sister, and she hunts for and eats them. Then, when he lowers the branches, he tells her to take hold of the tree with all her might. She grasps the tree, but the tree takes hold of her when her brother lets go, and the birch lifts her into the air. She dangles like a fish on a line. Her brother shouts for her to let go, but she holds on tight. The speaker likens it to a grip she has inherited evolutionarily from a long line of women whose wild ancestral mothers “[h]ung babies out on branches by the hands / To dry or wash or tan.”
Frost paints another visual. The brother draws an analogy between the girl dangling from the birch and the grapes they have been picking from it. She is described as ripe for the plucking, but with one more stem, which makes her a little bit safer from the picker, a return to the opening metaphor of the poem.
The girl, dangling from the tree, loses her hat and shoes and still hangs on tight. Her brother urges her to let go and drop, assuring her that he will catch her when she falls. When she resists, he threatens to shake her from the tree, but she continues to hold tight. At last he decides he will get her down the way he got her up, by bending the tree’s branches back down to earth.
When the girl finds her feet touching ground again, it still takes her a moment to let go, as though she were hanging on to something far greater than the birch tree. Her brother chides her that she should weigh more next time (than, perhaps, a bunch of grapes, “[e]qually with my weight in grapes”) so that she “won’t / Be run off with by birch trees into space.”
The woman reflects that she was lifted in air not because she did not weigh anything but more because she did not know anything. She resolves that she had not “taken the first step in knowledge” and “had not learned to let go with the hands.” Even with the years past, she has still not learned to let go “with the heart.” It was her heart as much as her hands that held her in air, and she does not wish even in maturity to learn to let go with that any more than she did then. The poem closes with her concluding that she may still learn to live as others do, “To wish in vain to let go with the mind— / Of cares, at night, to sleep,” but she has no need to learn to let go with the heart.
In many ways “Wild Grapes” is the companion to “Birches” it was meant to be. Some of the images are the same, as is the resistance to being set back down to Earth to stay. This speaker, like the one of “Birches,” also seems to have wanted to “get away from earth awhile.” She too seemed to want to climb toward heaven, not to it. She is cast as a different swinger of birches than the boy of the earlier poem, however. She finds herself swung by them—she is passive in her role with nature. The two share something of the heart as well. The speaker of “Birches” declares that “Earth’s the right place for love” because he does not “know where it’s likely to go better,” and the speaker of “Wild Grapes” wants to hold onto her heart and never let go. But in many ways the image Frost presents here is traditional in respect to sex roles. The young girl is “boyish” in the first place, which explains her desire to tag along with her brother at all. Birch tree climbing is for boys, not girls, the poem makes clear at the outset. And she is dependent on her brother and described as being full of fear the day she “swung suspended with the grapes” rather than full of adventure, like the boy who was too far from town to learn baseball. Her brother must rescue her as a damsel in distress who is not in control of the situation. She is younger, but she is also the weaker and softer sex, and that depiction is evident. “Wild Grapes” is romanticized as is “Birches,” but the speakers of the two poems are definitively classified according to masculine and feminine traits. The speaker of “Wild Grapes” even refers to evolutionary traits, as though she inherited her grip from her femaleness, from mothering and raising babies in the wildest of circumstances.
The two poems are companions, however. They each have heart, and the boy and girl each strive not to let go of something precious. “Birches” notably has a darker side that is not evident in “Wild Grapes” and gives it a different tone. “Birches” is also a greater composition, flawless in its execution, its choreography. “Wild Grapes” lacks the depth and bite of the other, which comes, it seems, from a speaker who is a bit more mature and experienced, but also jaded. The speaker of “Wild Grapes,” while clearly grown, does not look backward from a position of old age with the same sort of disagreeable view as one whose “face burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it” and with “one eye weeping / From a twig’s having lashed across it open.”
The speaker of “Wild Grapes” concedes that she did not know “anything” and that she still does not want to know certain things. She is resistant to learning anything that will cause her not to go with her heart. The speaker of “Birches,” in contrast, knows too much but also knows something with certainty from the heart: “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” Robert Pack writes,
The old woman’s gift of her story qualifies as a Frostian “momentary stay against confusion” and a respite from uncertainty—not the uncertainty about ultimate meanings or the design of a deity who may or may not exist, but the uncertainty as to whether or not anything matters, like the love of nature, the physical world itself that the imagination may perceive as being invested with symbolic richness. (76)
“Wild Grapes” was first published in the December 1920 issue of Harper’s Magazine and later collected in New Hampshire.
Bacon, Helen. “For Girls: From ‘Birches’ to ‘Wild Grapes,’ ” Yale Review 67 (1977): 13–29. Bagby, George F. Frost and the Book of Nature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993, 114–117. Cramer, Jeffrey S. Robert Frost among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own Biographical Contexts and Associations. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 1996. Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 198–203. Pack, Robert. Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost. Hanover, N.H.: Middlebury College Press, 2003. Perrine, Laurence. “Letting Go with the Heart: Frost’s ‘Wild Grapes,’ ” Notes on Modern American Literature 2 (1978): 20.