After Apple Picking is a curious poem that, on the surface, is a person thinking out loud, telling a complicated story of the apple harvest and how their sleep is going to be affected because the work has been exhausting.
Since the poet is Robert Frost, this surface explanation will not cut the mustard. There is far more going on inside this extended metaphor, and this analysis will help reveal the workings of this fascinating poem.
Published in 1914 in Frost’s book North of Boston, After Apple Picking quickly established itself as one of the most unusual of offerings from the poet, despite the seeming ordinariness of the setting – a farm orchard.
A stickler for structure and meter (metre in UK), Frost took this poem’s subject to the limits of what he could tolerate within the boundaries of conventional form. He disliked free verse, calling it tennis with the net down, so chose to employ lines of varied length and irregular rhymes that stretch the sense of sound and pattern.
Because the poem is somewhat surreal in nature, unusual for a Frost poem, he needed to rein in the potential for dissipation and disorder whilst at the same time allowing some distortion. Hence the peculiar rhyme scheme and lineation.
As Frost himself wrote in one of many notebooks:
Let chaos storm!
Let cloud shapes swarm!
I wait for form.
Pertinax is latin and means stubborn or obstinate, so it is clear that Frost much preferred the sanctuary of secure form in his verse to that of anything experimental. Yet, there is always something else to look for in his poems.
After Apple Picking can be interpreted in various ways. The major themes focus on:
- renewal and death, following a working life fulfilled.
- psychic disturbance as in the biblical Garden of Eden.
- routine and reality versus free time and the unconscious.
- time and the creative/poetic act.
Picture the speaker in the poem pulling off apple after apple from the tree, hours on end up that two-pointed ladder, with sore feet and aching muscles, relieved to have finished yet uncertain of a troubled sleep to come. Has all the effort been worth while?
Picture the poet about to embark on a new creative venture, having gained inspiration from the mythological connections to a fruit and some pecker-fretted apple trees. He wants the rhythms of his poem to mirror the state of mind of the speaker.
The work involved in crafting a suitable form that holds the weight of both sleep and sleeper is well worth reading, again and again.
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
After Apple-Picking explores the relationship between the human and natural worlds, focusing on a specific scenario, the end of an apple harvest and the subsequent consequences, both physical and psychic, for one person.
It is all about the nature of creative if repetitive, fruitful work and the after-effects it can produce. The speaker reflects on the last hours of the harvest, perhaps as he sits and drinks his home-made cider, or rests on his bed. Either way he is exhausted; the season is coming to an end and sleep beckons.
The reader is taken straight to the farm orchard and the image of ladder and tree, perhaps a symbol of some religious feeling deep down in the speaker. Is the ladder showing him the way? Certainly it connects to Jacob’s ladder from the bible’s book of Genesis, which led to heaven and spiritual redemption.
As the poem progresses however, feelings of suspension and resignation start to dominate. The speaker knows that there are some apples left and that the barrel isn’t full but his attitude is – to hell with those apples, I’ve had enough.
The apple itself is strongly associated with the Garden of Eden, Eve and the Tree of knowledge of good and evil but this poem only gives a shake of the head to the idea that God is involved in this harvest.
This speaker is far too wrapped up in the material details of apple-picking to have any thoughts about a deity. He’s on the verge of a strange winter sleep. He has already seen the world in a different light, by looking through ice he took from a trough, which distorted his world view.
But he consciously shattered that world, which led him to thoughts about dreaming, and the shape of his future.
- Note how the syntax, rhyme and rhythm alter and deviate from the norm to provide alternative structure for the varying states of mind of the speaker. He is caught between reality and otherworldliness, between his own ego-driven needs and the natural cycle of his spirit.
Time starts to blur as the speaker slowly sinks into uneasy sleep. He doesn’t count sheep to help him drift off, he thinks back to the ten thousand thousand apples he’s held, their fragrance, weight and form. They loom large in his mind. He could be entering an Alice in Wonderland kind of dreamland but here is no White Rabbit only a woodchuck (a ground squirrel, a type of marmot), about to hibernate.
The speaker’s sleep won’t be hibernation, or will it? His sleep won’t be a natural one, instinctive, following the seasons? If only that woodchuck could talk, this business of what kind of sleep would be put to bed once and for all.
The woodchuck’s sleep will be untroubled, the speaker’s potentially full of, too full, of humanness. Or, in the final act of harvest, the speaker will sleep the immortal sleep, reaping what he has sown, a simple creative life underpinned by symbol and metaphor, a profound approach to the art of getting lost.
After Apple-Picking has 42 lines, all of which are end rhymed, and the rhymes are full. For example:
tree/three and take/ache and off/trough.
What is different about this poem is the special and unusual way in which Frost has changed the rhyme scheme, that is, the pattern of rhyme, to reflect the dreaminess and uncertainty experienced by the speaker.
So, as the poem progresses, from line 1 to line 12, the reality of the recent actions taken to harvest apples, to the initial strange sleepiness of the speaker, the rhyme pattern is relatively easy to follow:
Move on and the rhyming starts to stretch, as does the speaker’s mind – he’s drowsing, thinking back to the morning and looking at the world through a sheet of ice. But he’s already dreaming, so must be asleep? He’s certainly losing control and becoming uncertain. Time shifts, like the rhyme pattern:
So for example, rhyming lines are sometimes far apart:
- It melted, and I let it fall and break. (line 13)
- My instep arch not only keeps the ache, (line 21)
and sometimes bunched together (lines 14-16):
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
And the uncertainty continues, with a repeat of the initial rhyme pattern in lines 27 – 32:
before the final ten lines bring the whole episode to a close:
and the suggestive cider-apple heap full rhymes with some human sleep.
Full end rhymes tend to bring familiarity and tight closure to lines, as well as giving reassurance to the reader through sound and resonance. It’s a bit like listening to different notes of hand-bells played in harmony. They can certainly please the ear and introduce texture and echo.
In this poem as you read through, some rhymes do bring a sense of structure and solidity, whilst others – far apart – are like distant echoes. Clever use of enjambment and syntax strengthens this feeling of control and looseness, of a new world unfolding out of the old.
After Apple-Picking is a poem that contains a mix of rhythm, varied meter, but almost two thirds of the lines keep to the tried and trusted iambic pentameter. Frost preferred this steady, natural line to any other because it follows the rhythms inherent in average English conversation. And it’s the most traditional meter.
The iambic pentameter line has an ideal ten syllables and five feet per line in daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM fashion. For example, lines 2 and 3:
And there’s / a ba / rrel that / I did / n’t fill
Beside / it, and / there may / be two / or three
Line 5 inverts the iamb of the first foot and becomes a trochee, placing emphasis on the first syllable, so altering the rhythm slightly:
- Apples / I did / n’t pick / upon / some bough.
There are many other deviations in this poem. The first line for example has twelve syllables and is iambic hexameter:
- My long / two-poin / ted lad / der’s stick / ing through / a tree
whilst line 18 has eleven syllables:
- Magni / fied app / les a / ppear and / disappear
making this a pentameter with trochee as first and fourth feet, with a pyrrhic third foot and a dactylic fifth foot, fading away just like the apples.
This rhythmic variation helps create interest whilst also challenging the reader as they scan each line and produce the sounds and invest in the meaning. The steady, almost plodding beat of the pure iambic pentameter is mixed with the dimeter and trimeter to contrasting effect. It reflects the loss of control felt by the speaker as they drowse and fall into sleep
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997