I was reading "Birches" by Robert Frost. I am having difficulty in understanding the meaning of a part of a line.

Please refer to Poetry Foundation for the full poem.

What is the meaning of this part (of a line):

...And not one but hung limp, not one was left For him to conquer.

Does it meaning that all the trees except one hung limp and that he had conquered every tree?

  • 3
    "not one but x" means "not one didn't x" => "all were x", so every tree hung limp (presumably the one refers to trees, didn't look at the context). See also: english.stackexchange.com/q/36572/93130
    – muru
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 20:26
  • 1
    @muru Sounds like you've got the makings of a good answer there :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 21:54

1 Answer 1


"Not one but hung limp" does not mean "all except one hung limp" (even though "but" in the sense of "except" exists). In fact it means "there was not one that did not hang limp" or "all hung limp (without exception). This is why the verse continues, "not one was left For him to conquer".

This is an old usage of "but". You can find it, for example, in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, Act II, scene 3 (my emphasis):

Peruse them well:
Not one of those but had a noble father.

The context of these lines is that the king of France allows Helena, the play's main female character, to choose a husband from among the young noblemen at his court. All of them have a noble father, i.e. there is not one that does not have a noble father.

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