After Apple-Picking The Poem by Robert Frost

After Apple-Picking

The Poem
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
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
After Apple-Picking 1
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.”
Themes and Meanings
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.
Forms and Devices 2
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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