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Robert Frost: After Apple-Picking

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Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” is an introspective take on the thoughts we have before we slide into sleep. Dreams can be a fascinating insight into the mind, and this speaker, having kept so close track of them, has offered the reader a peek into his subconscious. In those fleeting moments between awake and asleep, the speaker finds meaning and depth throughout his day where he had previously not had the time to consider it. One of his earlier works, the poem is an excellent example of the clarity and simplicity of Frost’s language and delivery, as well as a refreshing contrast to the dominant poetic movements of the era. The very title of this poem expresses significance to the work as a whole. Upon reading the poem, had the reader not known the title, it could be easily assumed that the poem was set during apple-picking, not after. Not knowing this information could convolute one’s interpretation of the poem, imagining a very sleepy apple-picker during the day rather than the apple-picker drifting in and out of memory at the conclusion of his day.

The sense of moving in and out of a dream-like state and consciousness is further exacerbated by a rhyme and metre that is, at a glance, unstructured. The poem is, in general, iambic, but one gets the sense that Frost made no conscious decisions to structure it one way or another. It simply follows the natural heartbeat of spoken English. In fact, the poem seems meant to be read out loud, as the rhymes are not necessarily controlled but they fall easily from the mouth. He is driven by the sound rather than the arrangement. Frost sometimes rhymes quickly, as in lines 14-16, where “well,” “fell,” and “tell” come in quick succession to one another. Later in the work, he takes longer to rhyme, separating “take” (l. 17) and “ache” (l. 21) and “end” (l. 19) and “bend” (l. 23) by three lines. The rhymes seem to get further and further spaced apart as the speaker drifts further into his stupor. The space between “heap” (l. 35) and the final “sleep” (l. 42) is quite long, and punctuated with more instances of the word “sleep” in lines 38 and 41. This repetition evokes a trance-like mood. Frost also employs many different line-lengths throughout the poem.

He begins with quite a long sentence, lasting throughout lines 1 through 5, and punctuates the poem with short fragments, such as “But I am done with apple picking now.” (l. 6). While the reader is kept awake and on his or her toes by these syntactic changes, the speaker drifts into a dreamlike state, exemplified by the fact that there are no stanzas in the poem. The speaker makes no effort to have spaced-out, separate thoughts; it is simply one unbroken stream of consciousness. Frost, a practical poet and a man entrenched in modernism, wrote in the voice that came to him. This is the voice of an unassuming man, not the booming verse and rhyme of older poets or the upper class. He employs a simple vocabulary, generally using words of only one or two syllables. It does not aim to impress or even inform, the poem is written less as a poem and more as a direct transcription of what the speaker’s thoughts are before he slips into sleep. Perhaps this is so the reader can feel less as though they are being talked at and more as though they are invited to join the scene of the poem. Though the tone of the poem is not particularly ominous, there are several metaphors that would lead a careful reader to believe that Frost has crafted a poem about the eternal sleep – death.

This “essence of winter sleep” (l. 7) could be an allusion to the final season of the speaker’s life, or anyone’s, for that matter. Winter is metaphorically the “death” of the earth, and the speaker’s self-hypnosis through the “hoary glass” (l. 12) has him falling into sleep for most of the day – perhaps it is the “winter” of his own existence. The poem makes references to the end of the harvest, and the cold season would indicate that the days to pick apples are numbered. Apples, and the harvest thereof, are perhaps used by Frost as metaphors for the culmination of our human labour. We fill our bushels with accomplishments, hopes, dreams and triumphs, and we forget (or drop) that which did not go as planned or went badly. To be forgotten, just as the fallen apples are forgotten. The speaker indicates that there are apples he has not harvested, and that some bushels are empty (l. 2-4), perhaps reminiscing on the things he was unable to accomplish in his life. Nearing the end of the poem, the speaker is “…overtired/Of the great harvest [he] desired.” (l. 28-29.) The metaphor extends to show the reader that though the speaker (and most humans) desire life, and to avoid death, we cannot avoid it.

We cannot avoid getting tired, and getting the strangeness on our sight (l. 9) that preludes death. The speaker feels as though a “long sleep” is coming on (l. 41), one that he likens to the sleep (hibernation) of the woodchuck in winter. Frost also includes several instances of biblical imagery in the poem, the most notable of which is the allusion to the story of Jacob’s Ladder (l. 1-2). This biblical tale in the Book of Genesis tells the story of Jacob, who dreamt of a ladder going up to heaven. As we know the speaker is “upon [his] way to sleep” (l. 15) the allusion is further strengthened. Biblical imagery related to Adam and Eve (the proverbial fall of man), apples, and the orchard in Genesis is rampant, as the entire poem is set in an apple orchard. Lines 32-36 could be subtle allusions to fallen men (men that have sinned) being worthless, as the fallen apples are worthless. It’s difficult to say what Frost intended with these elusive references, but at the very least they serve as structural elements of the poem, helping to ground the reader with mentions to tales they have most likely been exposed to most of their lives. In terms of the metaphorical death of the earth in winter, and perhaps the death of the speaker, the references to the bible and the heavens contribute to the feeling that something or someone is nearing its end.

Though the meaning of this poem is difficult to ascertain, knowing what it means or what Frost was trying to say isn’t really the point. It is doubtful whether the speaker himself knows exactly what he means – the reader is privy to his waking dream, or even, perhaps, his death. But by making such an archetypal autumn activity into a sombre and spiritual reflection, Frost has encouraged the reader to think beyond their daily life, into the anxieties, aspirations, doubts, etc. that linger just underneath the surface of one’s psyche. These subconscious feelings tend only to surface in those few moments when one’s mind straddles the abyss between waking and dreaming.


Frost, Robert. “After Apple Picking.” Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th edition. Ed. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, Jon Stallworthy. New York City: W. W. Norton and Co. 2005. Page 1231. Print.

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