Robert Frost preferred to write within the traditional forms and patterns of English poetry, scorning free verse, comparing its lack of form and metrical regularity to playing tennis without a net. “After Apple-Picking” is not free verse, but it is among Frost’s least formal works. It contains forty-two lines, varying in length from two to eleven syllables, with a rhyme scheme that is also highly irregular; many of the rhyme lines are widely separated. There are no stanza breaks. Frost intends to evoke a mood of hesitation and drowsiness, as if the speaker were about to drop off to sleep and is no longer fully in control of his thoughts.
The poem is written in the first person; the speaker is someone who has worked long and hard but is now on the verge of being overwhelmed by fatigue and the depth of the experience. The details of his activity are recalled in contemplating the dream he expects to have. The poem is filled with images drawn from the speaker’s experience with the pastoral world; the events he remembers all took place on a farm, specifically in an apple orchard. He has climbed a ladder to pick apples; even when he has finished, he can almost feel the rungs of the ladder beneath his feet. The smell of the apples is pervasive, and he can still hear the sound of the wagons carrying loads of apples into the barn.
All the sensory images are pleasant, but they have become distorted, as if the pleasant dream could become a nightmare. The speaker finds that the large harvest for which he had wished has become excessive: He has “had too much/ Of apple-picking.” He recalls the details of the work with pleasure, but he is half afraid of the sleep he feels coming on. On the edge of sleep, he remembers not only the ripe apples successfully picked but also those that fell and were considered damaged and had to be sent to the cider mill. He knows that his sleep will be troubled by the failures more than by the successes. He is not sure about the nature of the sleep he is about to drop into—whether it will be ordinary sleep, more like a hibernation, or more like death.