Themes

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Last Updated on February 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

Dreams as a Reflection of Truths in Reality

As the speaker drifts off to sleep, he begins to fantasize about the apples he picked during the day, and these visualizations multiply in his mind in the strange space between waking and rest. The profusion of sensory images is slightly overwhelming, despite their beauty. The apples he sees are nearly monstrous and seem to move and twist of their own volition, and the detail the speaker can see on each apple (“every fleck of russet showing clear”) seems overpowering. The speaker’s body, too, is deeply involved in these surreal images. He feels not only the “ache” of the ladder’s rungs but also their “pressure,” as if he still stands there—and the whole ladder “sway[s] as the boughs bend,” indicating that the speaker’s movement is intimately tied to those of the apple trees. Too, he hears the sound of many apples being thrown into a cellar bin to be kept for winter.

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In these slightly strange appeals to multiple senses (visual, tactile, and auditory), Frost subverts the pastoral conventions that might be expected in a poem about picking apples, and as a result, the speaker’s dreams reflect his reality: he is both satisfied and unsatisfied by the work he has done, and is ultimately uncertain about its worth.

The Necessity of Death as a Counterpart to Life

Taking place in autumn, this poem frequently talks about a coming sleep; this refers both to literal sleep and to the coming winter, which the speaker is obviously preparing for. Winter and sleep are both often used as metaphors for death, and the concept of the harvest is employed in this context to illustrate the end of people’s lives. As in a harvest, the speaker has collected much, both literally and metaphorically; however, in some respects, he is unsure about the worth of his labor. He says that he has “had too much / Of apple-picking,” even if it seemed worthy at the time he labored. He also notes how much of his work was wasted, and laments that so many apples fell and were thrown to the “cider-apple heap / As of no worth”—that is, as if they didn't mean anything, even if they were unbruised or unblemished. Given this, the prospect of death is, while not exactly positive, seen as something necessary. Just as winter follows autumn, death must follow life as the natural next stage. There is a sense of peace and stillness in this poem, despite its dissatisfactions, and Frost conveys a sense of acceptance in death and rest.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

Much of Frost’s poetry, like “After Apple-Picking,” describes ordinary events taking place in a rural setting, often on the kind of farm where he lived for many years. Many poems also use such settings to pose broad questions concerning the meaning of human life and the relations between man and the natural world. Few of these poems are as clearly allegorical as this one.

The lessons of “After Apple-Picking” could be applied to almost any line of endeavor which the participant loves and enjoys but finds exhausting, partly because of the loving effort required. For Frost himself, the poem most likely is intended to describe his feelings about poetry, after writing it over a period of years.

There is an anomaly in this, for “After Apple-Picking” was written when Frost was thirty-nine, still a relatively young man, while the poem seems to represent an old man’s feelings. The explanation may be that the poem was composed in 1913, immediately after A Boy’s Will (1913), his first book, had been published. The book had come out after many years of struggle and had received little favorable notice. “After Apple-Picking” may have been a response to that disappointment, an expression of his uncertainty about his future as a poet.

In any case, the speaker had wished for a full and productive life in poetry, and he feels that he has had that. Never having desired any other kind of life, he has given all of his devotion to poetry and is able to believe that he has succeeded; the harvest has been a full one, perhaps even fuller than he had hoped for or expected. He has written a large number of poems and can feel confident that they are good.

Now, however, he is forced to realize that the experience has drained him. He cannot forget any aspect of it, nor does he regret having lived as he has, but he has no desire to continue. Furthermore, his mind focuses on the failures, symbolized by the fallen apples: the poems he started and could not find a way to finish, the ideas which would never find clear expression in his poems, perhaps even the poems which he finished but was dissatisfied with and had to discard. What should have been an entirely satisfying experience turns out to have left him dissatisfied, less proud of what he achieved than concerned about his failures.

Having come to the end of an experience, he is also troubled by uncertainty about what lies ahead. He uses the image of the hibernating woodchuck to symbolize this question. Perhaps the sleep he goes to will be only an ordinary “human sleep,” from which the speaker will arise, presumably refreshed and ready to go on with his life. Perhaps, however, it will be a sleep like the animal’s hibernation, an oblivion extending over a long period of time and ending in a world entirely different from the one the sleeper left. The questions also raise an issue that Frost was often concerned with—that of what, if anything, may lie beyond death. In a poem entitled “The Onset,” he uses the cycle of seasons to suggest that death is only temporary, like winter, but in “After Apple-Picking” he provides no such assurances. The early hopeful image of the ladder pointing “Toward heaven” is not confirmed by the conclusion of the poem.

It is typical of Frost’s approach to the larger questions of life that he does not provide or even suggest an answer to the questions he raises, preferring to leave the reader to find the way to his or her own answers. The poem finally leaves the impression that the sensory enjoyment of the endeavor provides its true justification, but that the larger issues it implies are beyond human understanding.

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