I am going to examine the poem, After Apple Picking, by the American poet, Robert Frost. He lived for a while in Britain but spent most of his life living in New England. This is where most of his inspiration for writing came from. His writing style reveals the compact idiom of that region. New England was to Frost, what the Lake District was to Wordsworth; his inspiration.
He worked as a farm labourer which granted him the opportunity to get closer to nature. Some sources say that he rivals Wallace Stevens as the greatest American poet of the 20th Century. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times! He was asked to read at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, due to his outstanding talent for writing.
Frost found it easy to fill his poems with depth and emotion as he led such a tragic life. His wife and several of his children had died. As a result of this, Frost was believed to have contemplated suicide which is an underlying theme in Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Frosts poetry was seen as ‘revolutionary’ because most poetry at this time period was ‘romantic’ in style. His poems were classical, realist and controversial. They were also reticent, slow and ruminative. His writing reveals his roots in the New England countryside which was the inspiration for much of his writing. Frosts writing also reveals a homely philosophy but with a hint that the pioneering spirit has not yet died. Frost uses his surroundings, past experiences and views on life to influence his poetry. Frost himself once said, ‘A poem starts in delight and ends in wisdom’.
After Apple Picking concerns itself with the daily work of earning a living, in this case apple picking or possibly the feeling of fatigue and fulfilment after the work is completed. This reflects his toil as a poet.
Harold Bloom describes the poem as ‘A gracious hymn to the necessity of yielding up the quest’.
The emotions shown in the poem are those of someone between waking and sleeping. Due to memory and sleep his dreams are magnified or blurred and distorted, on a simple narrative level. On a deeper level the world of normal consciousness and the world that lies beyond it melt and mingle.
The speaker is tired after a long day’s work of apple picking. However we discover that he felt drowsy and soporific since the morning when he looked through the translucent sheet of ice, which was almost like a veneer finish on the surface of the water. He now feels fatigued and can feel sleep coming on. He queries in his mind whether it is just an ordinary sleep or something more profound.
The poem is rich in end-rhymes but it has no regular arrangement. The length of each line also varies from long to short. The slow tempo and cadence suggests the recurrent labour has dissipated all of his energy. Both the tempo and rhythm are manipulated and varied with subtlety by the poet. This retains the activity of the words and sounds. It all coalesces to keep the reader intrigued and engaged while the narrator meanders off into oblivion.
Richard Gray states, ‘The dreamy confusion of the rhythm, the curiously ‘echoing’ effect of the irregular unpredictable rhyme scheme, the mixing of tenses, tones and senses, the hypnotic repetition of sensory detail: all these things promote a transformation of reality that comes paradoxically from a close observation of the real, its shape, weight and fragrance rather than any attempt to soar above it’. ‘American Poetry of the 21st Century’
‘Sleep’ is a powerful image in the poem as its repetition is like a collection of orally transmitted poetic hymns. The word ‘sleep’ is mentioned 6 times throughout the poem which creates emphasis on how the speaker is feeling. Frost wavers between the daylight world of common sense reality and the dream world of possibility. Memories of waking fact and their sleepy distortions become impossible to tell apart.
What is the nature of the sleep? The subject of the poem, apple picking, awakens thought of the Garden of Eden, from which, after the apple was picked by Eve and eaten by Adam and Eve, man was disgorged into a world of covetousness, immorality and bereavement.
The narrator states that he was ‘well’ on his way to sleep even prior to the morning venture with the sheet of ice. Since life is a process culminating in death, the narrator’s reference to heaven promotes the possibility that he may be proceeding to an imperishable sleep. The season in which the poem is set accentuates the idea as it is symbolically connected to the death of the year. The hibernation of the woodchuck further suggests a pattern of death and resurrection.
The narrator dreams of a job well done which epitomises his Heaven on Earth.
The poem is sometimes seen to be an elaboration of the book of Genesis from the Bible. It describes Adams toil and suffering after eating the apple from the Garden of Eden. It shows that the curse of labour will even follow him into his rest and dreams.
The surface of the poem seems to deal with the thoughts and feelings of the poet after a day’s hard work of apple picking. In Western civilisation, however, apple picking has its own metaphoric and allegorical connections. Frosts work is often familiarised with the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man. Just like Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking, there is a more intricate meaning to After Apple Picking.
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree,
This line shows us that the materials and objects in the poem belong to the apple picker. The use of the adjective ‘long’ with the ‘o’ vowel sound emphasises how fatiguing ascending and descending his ladder would have been. He would be over-tired due to the countless ascents and descents. The ladder seems to disappear into the almost abstruse abundance of leaves and branches which gives us the impression that Frost feels that heaven is concealed and far from his reach.
Toward heaven still.
The narrator is standing on his ladder looking up towards heaven but he cannot gain access as he is stuck between reality and what is a dream. He longs for death but ‘heaven’ is ‘blocked’ by life’s responsibilities.
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.
The narrator has done all he could but due to minor human imperfections he could not carry on due to how fatigued he feels. This symbolises the many disregarded opportunities and chances he may have had throughout his life. There is a sense of incompleteness but, paradoxically, of satisfaction. This is unlike Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking where every berry was picked, even the unripe ones, due to greed.
But I am done with apple picking now.
The harvest of any human effort is mirrored by the harvest of apples. The line shows that the narrator has a sense of decisiveness and knows when to quit honourably. There are subtle hints at negligence towards perfection.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
In this line there is an implicit hint of hibernation in the metaphor which is revisited in the concluding lines. There is an abundance of hints regarding winter throughout the poem which is ironic as winter, in the metaphorical language of seasons, means death.
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.
The sweet ‘scent’ of the apples is almost soporific and seems to have an anaesthetic effect on the narrator. The semi-colon allows the reader time to metaphorically ‘breathe in’ the intoxicating scent of the apples, which is followed by the sensuous pull of the Earth.
I cannot shake the shimmer from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the water-trough,
And held against the world of hoary grass.
The perennial effect of what he saw is emphasised by the poets’ use of sibilant alliteration. The frozen surface is metaphorically described as a pane of glass which could be used as a lens upon reality that distorts and transforms the accustomed into something undistinguishable. In these few lines we are given a more powerful image of winter as it creates an image of a frosty morning in our imaginations.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
It is easy for the reader to visualise the ice melting and Frost uses a comma to create a pause, to accommodate this.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
He is overtaken by exhaustion and fatigue when he ‘relives’ the day in his mind. However the sequence and tenses are inconclusive. It is hard for the reader to tell where the sleep began and the narrator started to dream, and what is real. Fact and its drowsy distortions become almost impossible to tell apart.
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and reappear,
These lines are almost nightmarish in their imagery and representation. There is a subtle use of alliteration with emphasis on the letter ‘a’. This also emphasises the repetitiveness of the dream.
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
This detailed vision suggests that the images of the apples are dwelling in his psyche.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of the ladder round.
Even the physical sensations of apple picking are vividly remembered and they prevail in his sleep. They also disturb his rest.
And I keep hearing from the cellar-bin
That rumbling sound
These two lines correlate to Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking’s ‘tinkling bottom’. Here the sound is robust which is suggested by the use of the adjective ‘rumbling’, which is almost onomatopoeic in describing the sound of the apples in the barrel.
Of load on load of apples coming in.
This line adds sound to the poem. The huge number of apples is conveyed by the use of repetition in ‘load on load’.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
The narrator is physically and mentally tired as he had set himself too many unobtainable challenges. The use of the colon emphasises his tiredness. It’s almost like the poem is taking a deep breath.
For the great harvest I myself desired.
The harvest symbolises the narrators’ knowledge which has an implicit link to the Garden of Eden.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
The repetition of the word ‘thousand’ and the use of hyperbole emphasises the number of apples and it also implies that they were countless. This is a nightmarish magnification, not a reflection of the harvest that actually took place. There is a hint of implicit imagery of sleep-inducing counting of sheep.
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall,
The action of the apple picker is mirrored by the deliberate use of commas in the line to create pauses.
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 consequences of falling, for the apples, are decay and blemish. This symbolically reflects mans fall from grace and condemnation to a life of toil. Adam was still ‘perfect’ but he had ‘sinned’ and was therefore ‘stained’ and unfit for the Garden of Eden.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
The narrator seems unsure whether it is a normal common sleep or something ‘greater’ and ‘deeper’.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
The woodchuck is a small American rodent very similar to a squirrel. The poet uses anthropomorphism to imply that the woodchuck could advise the narrator. Frost longs to be able to regenerate himself, just like the hibernating woodchuck through a long death-like sleep. The season emphasises nature’s death and further emphasis is added with the wood chuck. Its hibernation suggests a pattern of death and resurrection.
Or just some human sleep.
The word ‘sleep’ is referred to six times in the poem and four of them are in the last five lines. The repetition is like a sleepy mantra which again emphasises how tired and fatigued the narrator is, bringing the poem to a conclusion.
After Apple Picking portrays a reflection upon life itself after everything is said and done. The apples symbolise the decisions a person makes in life, both good and bad, and the poem’s narrator become conscious of the fact that he has shaped his own fate with the choices he had made. This theme and Frost’s use of literary devices make the poem both outstanding and simple to relate to. The apples represent the narrator’s experiences in life; good and bad. I think that this poem is timeless as anybody can relate to what he is feeling, even though it was written in 1914. Frost uses different elements and themes in this poem to create two tones which clash. The contrast throughout the poem helps the reader to realise how important it is that they make the most of life while they still can.
Out of the two poems, Blackberry Picking and After Apple Picking, I prefer Blackberry Picking. This is because I can understand and interpret this poem more easily. I think the way the poem portrays mans greed is very unique and powerful.