Half-asleep and weary from work, the speaker describes his experience picking apples and wonders if his dreams will be troubled by his efforts. Some fruit remain on the boughs, but he is “done with apple picking now”. Although After Apple-Picking describes an ordinary scene from rural life, the “great harvest” could represent any aspect of our lives, raising questions about the significance of our desires and accomplishments compared to “whatever sleep” is to come.
After Apple Picking
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
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.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
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.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
The Great Harvest of Apples
The speaker has achieved the “great harvest” he “desired”. He reckons “there were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch” and refers to the “rumbling sound” of “load on load” of apples rolling into the “cellar bin”. The repetition in both images emphasises the tremendous success of the growing season.
Even if they were not “bruised” or “spiked with stubble”, any apples which “struck the earth” were added to the “cider-apple heap” because one bad apple could spoil the barrel. Farmers rely on the income generated from selling their “great harvest” at market, so nothing is allowed to go to waste.
Picking apples is tough and tiring work. Even after he has finished for the day, the speaker still feels the motion of the “ladder sway” and the “the pressure of a ladder-round” against the “instep arch” of his aching feet. The repetition of the word “keep” three times across these four lines shows there is no relief from the physical pain of picking apples.
The speaker cannot escape the mental anguish either. Consider the rhythm of this particular line:
I feel | the ladd | er sway | as the boughs | bend
Frost mimics the swaying movement of the ladder through the three iambic feet, alternating between unstressed and stressed syllables. We can almost hear speaker’s weight against the tree through the rising rhythm of the anapaestic “as the boughs” followed by the stressed “bend”. The alliteration of /b/ at the end of line emphasises that turn. Importantly, the drowsy rhythm conveys the speaker’s fatigue.
Mentally and physically exhausted, the speaker declares he is “done with apple-picking”. The word “done” is ambiguous because it might simply mean he is finished, but it could also signify he is too worn out to harvest any more apples.
Either way, he decided to leave the “two or three” apples on the “bough” and the last barrel unfilled. The language here is deliberately vague: it “may be two or three” apples on “some bough”. That emptiness is reinforced by the use of the existential “there” in these lines because the dummy pronoun serves a grammatical function and has no specific meaning.
Perhaps he regrets not picking those apples, but he seems to accept it was always going to be impossible to harvest every single piece of fruit.
“After Apple-Picking” follows the flow of the speaker’s thoughts, so there is no obvious chronology to the poem. This stream of consciousness pulls us deep into the narrator’s mind to explore the harvest from his perspective, but the mode can also be disorientating for the reader.
Is the speaker in this dramatic monologue still in the orchard? Or has he abandoned the ladder and returned home to rest his weary feet?
The Sleepy Rhythm
Robert Frost reflects the speaker’s drowsy mind through the shifting patterns of end-rhymes.
The poem seems to begin with a straightforward description of the orchard presented in a traditional abba pattern with the enclosed rhyme of “still” and “fill” positioned between “tree” and “three”. However, the expectation this formal rhythm will continue is immediately disrupted by the rhyming couplet. The abrupt echoing of “bough” and “now” in those two lines creates a sense of finality. The speaker feels “done”.
The end-rhymes then become unpredictable. For example, there are alternative rhymes, such as “night” and “sight”, but we have to wait an extra line until “off” is concluded by “trough”. This delay could convey the speaker’s struggle to control his thoughts.
Three quick lines end with “well”, “fell” and “tell”, creating a falling rhythm to link the “pane of glass” being dropped to the speaker drifting off to sleep. Perhaps the harsh rhyming of /k/ in “break” and “take” is the judder of someone trying to stay awake, especially when the sound is picked up again in line twenty-one with “ache”.
Here is a summary of the wonderfully complex rhyme scheme in After Apple Picking:
Some rhymes are colour coded to draw attention to aspects of the pattern and the faint divisions are an attempt to find an underlying structure.
Perhaps the most interesting rhyme is the one between “heap” and “sleep” seven lines later. It is the longest gap between the end-rhymes and draws the poem to a conclusion.
The Pane of Glass
The speaker mentions he “skimmed” a piece of ice from the top of the “drinking trough” and held it “against the world of hoary grass”. The morning was cold enough for ice to form on the water’s surface and colour the grass white. He also says he could not “rub the strangeness” from his “sight”, making the link between the blurry appearance of the farm he saw through the “pane of glass” to his tired eyes after a hard day picking apples.
Perhaps the speaker saw his reflection in the “pane of glass” and realised he was worn out like the grass.
The image of the ladder pointing “toward heaven still” immediately draws attention to the religious connotations of the poem because it could allude to the story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis who dreamed of a ladder the angels used to climb to heaven. Was the speaker striving to reach some sort of paradise? Does it remind him of his obligations to tend the orchard? Or does the fact he abandoned the ladder suggest he left his work without a blessing?
The title positions the reader to focus on what happens after the harvest is complete. This is particularly poignant if picking apples and sleep symbolise life and the great uncertainty of death. Frost offers a pragmatic view in Gathering Leaves when he says we should accept “a crop is a crop” because we do not know when “the harvest shall stop”.
The apple-picker is “drowsing off” and “overtired”. At the end of the poem, he is ready for sleep. He wonders if it will be “just some human sleep” and a brief respite from his work on the farm or the “long sleep” of hibernation like the woodchuck in its winter burrow waiting for spring to come.
The fact his ladder is pointing “toward heaven still” suggests he is not ready for the big sleep.
The speaker jokes he will dream about “magnified apples” in his sleep with “every fleck of russet showing clear”. Picking apples could represent the imaginative work of the poet. Are the apples which fall to the ground a metaphor for half-finished thoughts and poems which were never completed? Perhaps the ones saved for the “cider-apple heap” can still provide inspiration once all the fruit have been collected.
Frost’s Apple Trees
When Robert Frost and his family moved into their Derry farm on the first day of October in 1900, the apple orchard on the north side of the house might still have been ripe for picking. Their house in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire also had a large garden with some apple trees. This is where Frost finished writing “After Apple Picking” in the winter of 1913.
Despite the weary tone in the poem, Frost remained incredibly fond of picking apples. In fact, one of the reasons he wanted to move from New Hampshire in 1920 was because its “winter killed apple trees” and he wanted a “better place to farm and especially grow apples”. The new house in Vermont might have been inhabitable, but it did come with an ancient apple orchard.
Frost planted an orchard outside his cabin in Ripton in 1958. It can take five years for apple trees to bear fruit. Sadly, the poet died in January 1963 and may not have tasted that final “great harvest”.
- What, if any, is the significance of the title of the poem, especially the word ‘after’?
- Where is the poem set?
- Identify the verb tense used at the start of the poem and suggest why Frost made that choice.
- Suggest why the speaker feels the need to mention that the ladder is ‘sticking through a tree’.
- Using evidence from the first five lines, explain how you know the speaker feels incomplete or dissatisfied with apple-picking.
- What reason do lines seven and eight provide speaker for finishing? Look at the literal and symbolic significance of the reference.
- Suggest why Frost includes the image of a ‘pane of glass’.
- Suggest why apples play on the speaker’s mind when he dreams.
- What physical pain does the speaker describe he endures from working the ladder?
- How has the speaker’s attitude towards the ‘great harvest’ changed?
- What does the hyperbolic ‘ten thousand thousand fruit’ suggest about the speaker’s attitude towards apple-picking?
- Are the apples used for cider ‘of no worth’?
- How does the woodchuck’s sleep differ from ‘Just some human sleep’?
- The poem uses the word sleep six times. Does it, through repetition. Come to suggest a meaning beyond the purely literal?
- What was the significance of the four out of five senses presented in ‘After Apple-Picking’? (Taste was the only sense not mentioned).
Frost also questions the purpose of his work on the farm in Mowing and concludes “the fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows”. It was published a year before After Apple-Picking is certainly worth comparing the two poems. You might remember the theme of fulfilling obligations before sleep is picked up at the end of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.