― Robert Frost.
One of Frost’s earlier works, After Apple-Picking classifies him as a quaint, New England poet. After the poem was published in the year 1915, it has been interpreted in several different ways, and has even caused a lot of debate among experts about what the theme of the poem really is. Though Robert Frost was famous for sticking to the traditional style of poetry, this poem is one of his least formal works. He hasn’t completely abandoned the traditional style of poetry here, but hasn’t completely adopted the concept of free verse, which he was totally against, either.
The narrator, who is the apple-picker, has an old-fashioned ladder which he evidently uses to pick apples. The mention of the ladder standing upright, in the direction of Heaven, hints at the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder, where Jacob dreams of a ladder that reached Heaven.
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.
The narrator has been picking apples all day, and yet hasn’t picked all the apples on that tree. He still has one more barrel to fill with picked apples, but he is too tired to continue picking. He knows he should finish picking all the apples, but he has had enough.
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
This line tells us that the winter is fast approaching, and it is nighttime. This means that the narrator has spent all day picking apples, and is now exhausted by the work. He compares sleep to an ‘essence’ in the winter air, and feels this essence smells like apples, which again tells us about the effect of hard work on him. He is very sleepy, and feels like he’s going to fall asleep right there on the ladder.
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.
The narrator mentions that he feels a ‘strangeness’ in his sight, which is attributed to an incident he experienced earlier that day. The narrator found a thin sheet of glass on his water trough (water container) when he went to get a drink of water early in the morning. As he held the sheet of ice in his hands and looked through it at the frostbitten grass, he could see everything strange and distorted. When the ice began to melt in his hand, he let the sheet fall to the ground and break, but this did not change the strangeness in his sight, which is causing him to look at the world in an odd, different way.
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Though he dropped the sheet of ice in real life, the narrator mentally alters the scene before he sleeps. This brings us to an emotion many of us have forgotten to experience―taking the time to gather the day’s thoughts, situations, and actions before falling asleep. He is now in bed, ready to give in to his exhaustion and fall asleep, and predicts what dreams he is going to have.
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
The narrator does dream about apples―picking them and tossing them into the designated barrels. In his dream, the apples are ”magnified”, and look very different than what he is used to. He can see every russet-colored spot (reddish-brown fleck) on the apples, thanks to the magnified appearance.
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
The narrator’s dream is very realistic. He can feel the pressure of standing on the ladder on his feet, and can even feel how his feet ache by standing on the ladder all day. Not only does he feel himself standing on the ladder, but he can also feel the ladder moving against the tree’s branches.
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
The narrator is almost living the dream, as it is so realistic. He can hear the sound of the apples being offloaded into the bins where they will be sorted. This line also makes it clear that the narrator is not the only apple-picker in that orchard, perhaps, they are all hired by someone else to pick apples.
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
The narrator is tired of doing the work that he used to love in the past. He has picked countless apples over the years, and remembers how he always looked forward to the harvest season. However, now those feelings have changed. He no longer is excited about the apple-picking season.
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.
The narrator describes his work as an apple-picker, and the utmost care that they all have to take when picking apples. He talks about ‘ten thousand thousand’ fruit, (exaggeration for a very large quantity of apples) which had to be carefully unloaded into the barrels. Even if one fell down, and touched the ground, and remained unspoiled, it was thrown into the cider heap. The apples in the cider heap were considered useless.
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.
The narrator is sure that he is going to have visions of picking apples, dropping them, and standing on the ladder, haunting him in his sleep. He is unclear about what kind of sleep he is going to get―the normal ‘human’ kind, or the kind a woodchuck (read: a groundhog) gets to experience in the winter. Since it is already winter, and the woodchuck has already hibernated, the narrator cannot ask him if he knows. What we can decipher through these lines is that the narrator is extremely tired, and needs some well-deserved rest. Metaphorically, this also means that the narrator is wondering whether he will even wake up to life the next morning, or not.
Critics believe that this poem cannot just be about an apple-picker and his exhaustion at the end of a long day as well as a long career of picking apples. Poetry scholars believe that the entire poem is a metaphor for the changes in life that are experienced by everyone. Frost’s poem focuses mainly on sleep―be it the end of a hectic day, or the end of life. It could also be that the apple-picking is symbolic for all the hardships one has to face in life, before embracing death.
In the poem, the narrator mention the apples he didn’t pick, as well as the empty barrel, which are symbolic of dreams or ambitions that were left unfulfilled. The vast experience of picking apples is symbolic of all the things that the narrator did achieve in his life. However, even though his achievements made him happy, he is now tired of them as well, and wants to see an end in sight.
On a more positive note, another interpretation of this poem suggests that the narrator is a dying man, who is satisfied with all that he has achieved in his life, and though he wishes he could have done more, he is happy with whatever he has done.
At the end of the poem, Frost leaves the conclusion for the reader to decide―it is not specified what kind of sleep overtakes the narrator, a slumber, or death.
Robert Frost said, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” True, isn’t it?