The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The irregularities of line length and rhyme scheme, so unusual in a Frost poem, are noteworthy; they provide an almost staggering effect to “After Apple-Picking,” as if the speaker were literally reeling with fatigue. More important, the meters are highly irregular, especially in the frequent short lines: “As of no worth,” for example, where two unaccented syllables precede two stressed syllables, or “Were he not gone,” in which every syllable receives almost equal emphasis.

Reinforcing this impression of fatigue is the sense of disorientation which affects his senses: Images of smell, sight, movement, hearing and touch are all used. The speaker’s vision is compared to looking at the world through a thin sheet of ice which would distort and cloud what was seen. He has been off the ladder for a while, but he still can feel its rungs under his feet as well as its swaying. The apples he will see in his dreams are distorted, magnified to show every mark. He still hears the sound of the wagons.

As is often the case in Frost’s poems, the language is poetic without being stilted. It is not really the language of common speech—no colloquial language is used—but with the carefully planned metrics, the language conveys the sense of someone speaking aloud. The richness of the imagery, reinforcing the drowsiness of the speaker’s mood, also contributes to this effect.

The entire poem is a kind of extended metaphor, in which the activity of harvesting apples represents other kinds of activity, but Frost avoids metaphorical imagery, choosing instead precise images and rhythmic patterns which tend to fall, reinforcing the dominant theme of the fatigue of the narrator: “For all/ 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 language also supports the sense that the experience being described has become excessive: “There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,/ Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.”


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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