After Apple-Picking

by Robert Frost

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In “After Apple-Picking,” the process of picking apples can be read as a metaphor for a poet’s creative process. For example, the piece of ice in the following lines can be interpreted both literally and as a metaphor for poetic vision:

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
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.

In the quote above, which is one of the poem’s most lyrical passages, the speaker describes himself picking up what he calls a “pane of glass” from the water trough. This is not literal glass, but a piece of ice that formed on the water during the cold night. He picks up (“skim[s]”) the glass from the trough and looks through it to see the "hoary" grass at his feet. Hoary means gray or white, and in this case, the speaker means that he sees grass white with frost through the ice.

He notes, too, as the passage begins, that the sight of the grass as seen through the piece of ice is so strange that he can't “rub” the memory from his sight; this implies that he keeps rubbing his eyes, as people do when they see something unusual. The pane of ice must have distorted the grass—yet this very haunting strangeness is the essence of the poetic imagination.

This is a startling and memorable experience of the poetic vision. Such vision is like looking at the world through ice—in other words, looking at the world in a heightened, original way that the average person wouldn’t, noticing details that others wouldn’t, and then being unable to forget that memory. Frost could have merely used a cliche, but instead, he offers a fresh and detailed image that will stick with the reader.

It melted, and I let it fall and break.

This line follows the first quote about looking at the frosty grass through a piece of ice, but what is particularly poignant is that although this is a part—a continuation—of the image of holding the ice, Frost deliberately sets the line apart. He ends the line concluding with “hoary grass” with a period and writes the above line as a stand-alone sentence with a period. This places an emphasis on this single line: there is a stop (a period) before it and after it.

Here, the structure suggesting that the ice—which can be interpreted as Frost’s poetic vision—melted (ended), and the speaker let it fall and break (go away). The moment of inspiration has passed, and the speaker is no longer able to perceive in a heightened way, so he simply lets go. Yet, as the next lines will explain, he got enough inspiration, stating, “I was well.”

Frost breaks the line after “well.” This is called enjambment, because the line stops the reader; however, the thought is not yet concluded. This creates a double entendre, or double meaning. If readers stop here, as they must, it seems the speaker is saying he is “well” because he had his moment of inspiration, symbolized by looking through the ice. This is true, but as the thought continues to the next line, readers also learn that he is “upon [his] way to sleep”—in other words, he is in good spirits (“well”) because he is “well” on his way to sleep (with “sleep” referring to the formulation of a poem). In other words, the inspiration has struck and will be further shaped in his unconscious, a dream state.

My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps...

(This entire section contains 826 words.)

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the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

The above passage can be interpreted as a poet beginning work on his poem through the metaphor of picking apples on a ladder. As with picking apples, the process of gathering the fruits of inspiration is difficult and painful. Just as one aches and sometimes sways uncertainly while picking apples as the tree takes them in new directions, so composing a poem can be painful and also can cause one to move with the “sway” of one’s creation. The poem no more puts itself onto the page than the apples put themselves onto the breakfast table.

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

Like an apple picker, a poet can be overworked, as stated in the lines above. Like the apple picker, he needs to take a break from writing. He is pleased with the “great harvest” of words, but now it is time to rest. By likening the words that compose a poem to apples, Frost points to the mysterious, organic, and almost mystical way a poem “grows” into existence—and implies that the poetic process requires far more than the conscious work of the poet.