After Apple-Picking

by Robert Frost

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Robert Frost's poem “After Apple-Picking” is the story of a man falling asleep after a long day of working in an orchard. There are multiple interpretations of this poem available; while some simplistic readings of the poem interpret its tone as one of contentment, others admit further nuance in the speaker’s weariness. The speaker ultimately acknowledges the momentary satisfaction of labor—whether at apple-picking; at poetry, as some biographical interpretations see it; or at life itself. Too, though, he feels discontent: both in the knowledge of all he left undone or untouched and in the awareness that even what he thought he wanted to do was not quite enough.

The speaker in the poem has just finished a day’s work of picking apples in the orchard. He comes down from his ladder, which is still perched in the apple tree, pointing toward heaven above. He remarks that he has left a barrel unfilled, and there are a few apples left in the trees that could still be collected, but he has declared his work done. He seems to smell winter, equated with sleep, on the air as the end of the day comes—and he, too, is falling toward sleep. He remembers the ice he took from the surface of the drinking trough that morning, an indication of overnight frost and winter to come, and “cannot rub the strangeness from [his] sight.” These intimations of oncoming cold seem to overlap with the speaker’s drowsing at the tail-end of autumn.

“I could tell,” the speaker says, “What form my dreaming was about to take.” What follows is a catalog of images that brings the commonplace activity of apple-picking into a nearly surreal state. As the speaker drops toward sleep, the poem’s phrases become increasingly disjointed. In the speaker’s dreaming imagination, images of apples magnify and sharpen; the feeling of the ladder rung presses on his instep, and he can “feel the ladder sway”; and he hears the sound of “load on load” of apples being piled into the cellar bin as they are collected for storage. He begins to rest, and the world fades away from him, the sounds and smells of apple-picking thick in the air around him.

The poem shifts here, and the speaker says,

I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.

His sense of exhaustion with the “ten thousand thousand fruit to touch” mingles with his joy at “cherish[ing]” them: the speaker seems deeply ambivalent, and the reader is left somewhere between the feelings of repletion and emptiness. The poem resolves to choose neither, and in fact this uncertainty seems to be largely Frost’s point.

As the poem’s end approaches, sleep too becomes irresolute: it can be like the woodchuck’s “Long sleep”—a winter’s hibernation that resembles death—“Or just some human sleep.” In keeping with the dreamlike tone of the poem as a whole, both are true, in a way. Just as the speaker’s feelings about his labor are unresolved, the reader, too, is left without easy answers.

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