After Apple-Picking

by Robert Frost

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Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“After Apple-Picking” is written from the perspective of a speaker who has spent his day picking apples in an orchard and is now drifting off to sleep. While there are multiple interpretations available of “After Apple-Picking,” this reading reveals it to be a poem about weariness and the transformation of an exciting activity into a dull chore. It begins at the end of a long day: the speaker’s ladder faces

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.

The ladder points to paradise, or “heaven,” a nod to the early excitement of the activity of picking apples, and yet the unfilled barrel and the apples left on the tree leave the reader already with a sense of abandonment. The speaker did not abandon the task, but this imagery carries in it subtle hints as to the difference in the speaker’s attitude toward his work at the beginning and end of the season.

What follows is a description of the beginning of winter and, with it, the onset of dreams; the speaker is on the verge of sleep, just like the seasons. “I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight,” he says about seeing the world through a piece of ice that had formed in the “drinking trough” and which “melted” and “broke” on the ground.

But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.

The speaker’s dream takes the form of apples: they are “magnified” from every angle, as is every step in the process of picking them, storing them, and so on. He goes on to say,

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

He had been looking forward to apple-picking; he wanted the harvest to begin, but now that the season has reached its end, he has grown tired of the activity. The speaker has had too much of a good thing, and the apple-picking, once a delight, has become laborious.

Depending on the reader’s interpretation, this poem could be emphasizing the fickleness of the human spirit—which grows discontent with things that once gave it vigor—or it could be emphasizing the ever-changing aspect of the world. In other words, as the seasons change and the vivacity of summer grows cold and dark, so must human emotions, attitudes, and actions change and rest—otherwise, they grow weary and dull.

Frost uses his dreams of apple-picking to emphasize this human experience. Many humans have experienced this at one point; they have spent so much time doing something that as they fall asleep, all they see are elements of the activity, with patterns that they repeated in their waking life appearing in their dreams. It is this phenomenon that Frost is describing here with vivid imagery: the look of the apples, the “pressure of a ladder-round,” the “rumbling” sound of the apples as they are pouring into the basin in the cellar for storage, and the overwhelming thought of “ten thousand thousand” of the fruit.

These images, while they are representative of weariness, are pastoral, referencing aspects of bucolic country life; Frost writes often of nature and the countryside, and here, there is an extension of these considerations. Nature is often presented as revitalizing in Frost’s poems; however, in this interpretation of “After Apple-Picking,” there are elements of nature causing weariness. Yet it is the human aspect that facilitates this...

(This entire section contains 801 words.)

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fatigue; when humans meddle with nature’s processes, they can become overwhelmed. Frost leaves readers with this related thought to meditate on:

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 speaker reflects on this concept of a restless sleep troubled with repetitive imagery brought on by resentment. He wonders if this is a distinctly human experience, or if animals feel this way as well. In other words, he wonders if this particular brand of weariness a natural byproduct of being alive, or if human intelligence makes people suffer in this way.

The form of this poem is a bit unusual for Frost—both the meter and the rhyme scheme are highly irregular, whereas most of Frost’s poems are quite regular in this respect. By making the form of the poem resemble stumbling, Frost emphasizes the weariness of his speaker, the stupor he has sunken into from picking apples, and the restless sleep he endures. He is floating through life on the verge of sleep, and the reader experiences this sense of floating as well.

Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Robert Frost's "After Apple-Picking" is a forty-two line monologue in free verse, though lines in iambic pentameter occur frequently and end rhymes are used from time to time. The speaker has been picking apples and seems to be going to sleep with his mind still on his day's work. The first five lines are a single sentence in which the speaker reflects anxiously on his mistakes. He has left the ladder in the orchard, along with an unfilled barrel. He might also have missed "two or three" apples that he intended to pick. This is no rural idyll, but a description of hard work that has caused the speaker to be fretful and full of stress, like any businessman in a city. Even when he declares himself "done with apple-picking now," he still smells "the scent of apples."

As the speaker is "drowsing off," he confuses past and present, recalling how that morning he skimmed off a piece of ice from a drinking trough and looked through it like "a pane of glass." This eagerness to see the world a different way, characteristic of the poet and the child, is immediately followed in his recollection by his falling asleep, as he is doing now. The temporal disjunction here is signaled by the sudden use of insistent end-rhyme and short staccato lines after a period of smooth, regular iambic pentameter:

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.

The transition into sleep is not smooth. Three lines of iambic pentameter are separated by two sharp dimeter lines, the shortness of which emphasize the rhymes. After this last mixed-up moment of resistance to sleep, however, the speaker immediately starts to dream of apples. His aching feet remind him of the pressure of the ladder that has been beneath them all day, and this, in turn, recalls the swaying of the ladder in the wind and the sound of "load on load of apples" rumbling from the cellar bin below. The repetition and alliteration here combine to create a sense of fatigue. The long "o" sounds are like a yawn.

The speaker then explicitly states that he has "had too much / Of apple-picking." The feminine rhyme of "overtired" with "desired" emphasizes the extent to which he has had too much of a good thing. Clearly, he wanted a large crop of apples, but this success has created stress and worry to a point where he is dreaming about apples. This reflection leads him abruptly back to fretting about apples:

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

The individual care and even admiration the speaker would like to lavish on each apple, "cherishing" and preserving them, conflicts with the sheer number of apples in question. This responsibility is emphasized by the fate of those apples that fall to the ground. Even those which were otherwise flawless

Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.

This responsibility for consigning innocent apples to the heap of worthless cider apples will trouble the sleeper's dreams. In the final image of the poem, the speaker wonders whether the sleep that is even now claiming his consciousness will be like the woodchuck's

Long sleep, as [he] describe[s] its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Several critics have seen this "long sleep" as a reference to death. Not only does this seem an unnecessarily morbid conclusion to a poem about how tiring it is to pick apples all day, but it is specifically at odds with the mention of the woodchuck. Of course, woodchucks die like all animals; but the type of sleep that is specific to the woodchuck is hibernation, sometimes for as much as six months, from October to April. When one is tired after a hard day's work on a farm and will presumably have to get up early in the cold of the next morning, the idea of the woodchuck's "long sleep" is obviously appealing. Although the poem describes hardship in the midst of success, there is nothing else in it that suggests a death-wish.

This poem may be read as a straightforward description of apple-picking, and it has much to offer on this level. It may also be read as an extended metaphor for any labors, including those of the poet or other types of artists. The poem begins with the ladder, the function of which is to allow one to climb to new heights in any endeavor; yet in the poem, it is both a worry (in the first line) and a source of lasting pain. The apples can be taken to represent the work of the artist (and the fruits of his labor) or whatever is important to the reader: that which is desired but overwhelming and is a source of preoccupation and worry. They are no more straightforward than the ladder, which hurts and gives rise to anxieties at the same time that it gives scope to aspire by pointing "toward heaven."

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