After Apple-Picking

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.

Richard Poirier: On "After Apple-Picking"

The poem has become so familiar and revered that it is difficult to recognize its strangeness. But it would probably seem familiar in any case; it is a prime example of how even the very great poems of Frost can induce a kind of ease about their deeper intensities. It is a proud poem, as if its very life depends upon a refusal to justify itself by any open evidence of what it is up to. The apparent "truth" about the poem is that it is really concerned with the actualities of its announced subject. But is that "truth" even residually enough if, not thinking so, one takes the risk of burdening the poem with "more than the truth"? Brower has written meticulously about its rhythmic form, but he has not let himself feel the deeper pulsations in its metaphors. There are energies in the poem as well as a dream of potential experience that include but are passionately larger than that recorded in his otherwise useful observation that "From the opening lines, apparently matter-of-fact talk falls into curious chain-like sentences, rich in end-rhymes and echoes of many sorts" until "memories of waking fact and their sleepy distortions become impossible to tell apart" (The Poetry of Robert Frost, pp. 24, 25).

Once again, "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows." It is a muscular and active knowing, and should not be confused with Santayana's rather too fastidious proposition that "The artist is a person consenting to dream of reality." Consent is not at issue - as if reality were propositioning us. What is required is toil and labor, the exertion of body and mind necessary to bring anything to birth. Labor, again, is both one of the unfortunate consequences of the Fall and a way of overcoming them, of transforming them into fortunate ones. The "dream" that "labor knows" in Frost's poems of work is often "sweet" because it frequently involves images of the birth or rebirth of the self, of redemption offered those who try to harvest reality.

"After Apple-Picking" is a dream vision, and from the outset it proposes that only labor can penetrate to the essential facts of natural life. These include, in this case, the discovery of the precarious balances whenever one season shifts to another, the exhaustions of the body, and the possible consequences of "falling," which are blemish and decay. When the penetration of "facts" or of matter occurs through labor, the laborer, who may also be the poet, becomes vaguely aware that what had before seemed solid and unmalleable is also part of a collective "dream" and partakes of myth. This is in part what is signified by Emerson's paradigm at the beginning of "Language" in Nature: "1. Words are signs of natural facts. 2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. 3. Nature is the symbol of spirit." The penetrating power of labor can be evinced in "apple-picking" or in writing or reading about it, and any one of these activities brings us close to seeing how apples and all that surround them can be symbolic of spirit. The easiness of voice movement and vocabulary in the poem will seem at odds with deeper possibilities only to those who do not share Frost's perception, following Emerson and Thoreau, that the possibilities are simply there to be encountered. When at the very outset the apple-picker remembers "My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree," he is, without any self-consciousness, committed by "natural facts" to a mythological or symbolic statement, as he is immediately thereafter in the further "fact" that the ladder is pointing "toward heaven still." "Heaven" is not the destination awaiting anyone who climbs ladders, but it can become part of his consciousness of destinations.

A version of this image will appear later in "Directive," where "The height of the adventure is the height / Of country where two village cultures faded / Into each other. Both of them are lost. / And if you're lost enough to find yourself/ By now, pull in your ladder road behind you. . . ." But this "ladder" is essentially lateral. The journey is back into time, into geological and cultural debris. Though I would not, with Helen Bacon, think that the two towns refer to the twin cults of Apollo and Dionysus, the poem lets itself be read as an attempted journey to poetic and personal sources where a self can be discovered this side of heaven. By comparison, the ladder in "After Apple-Picking" is quite graphically vertical, and it points to a destination beyond itself. It is, also, a ladder that is not "pulled in"; it is "still" - "still" there, "still" to be climbed again, and "still" pointing as if, despite its being "long," it merely directs us to a place toward which it provides the initial steps. It sticks "through" a tree and not against it.

And yet for all these suggestions, the ladder is very much a real one. The phrase "two-pointed ladder" is itself less directly metaphorical than is "ladder road" of "Directive." In a context where every word seems so much by nature to be metaphorical, "two-pointed" trembles with possibilities of meaning that adhere to its very essence. The phrase could signify metaphor itself and reminds us that for Frost metaphor was the true source and method of all thinking. Not only do we think in metaphors that are contrived for the purpose, like "ladder road"', more than that, we cannot so much as use a word or a phrase without committing ourselves, often unknowingly, to metaphor and therefore to some form of unconscious "thought." Thinking in Frost is metaphoric or "two-pointed," and it directs us at last to what is beyond the metaphor, to things we cannot "know" and whereof, as Wittgenstein suggested, we should not speak.

A "two-pointed ladder" is very much like a metaphor as Frost describes it. Its two terms head in a parallel and mutually supporting direction; ultimately, however, the relationship comes to an end or leaves off; the metaphor necessarily breaks down. The progress or movement of analogy brings us to something beyond it, like faith or a belief. Metaphor, that is, both controls us and propels us into exaggerations, into the idea of God, for instance, with whom we enter into a relationship, as Frost says at the end of "Education by Poetry," in order "to believe the future in - to believe the hereafter in." As in much of Frost's prose the syntax here is aggressively vernacular and irregular, and the effect is to make the word "in" a part of the verb. By a relationship to God, about which we cannot say very much and have little to show, we can, however, try, as in "Carpe Diem," to bring the future and the hereafter "in" close, to bring it "in," as by climbing ladders for the picking of apples, from remoteness or abstraction. In this same talk - it was stereographically recorded and printed first in 1931 - Frost seems to have borrowed the image of the ladder and the sky from "After Apple-Picking" in order to talk about metaphor, about thinking, and about the hereafter or the future, the sky which waits at the end of the ladder. "We still ask boys in college to think, as in the nineties, but we seldom tell them what thinking means; we seldom tell them that it is just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another. To tell them is to set their feet on the first rung of a ladder the top of which sticks through the sky."

In his rambling somnolence, his driftings among the terms of his own obsessive experience, the apple-picker is "thinking" only less consciously than is the poet in his more directly exploratory use of language. From the outset the materials of the poem belong to the apple-picker: it is "my" and not "a" ladder that is sticking through the trees, and in Frost's formula the applepicker's "saying" of one thing in terms of another is "thinking" even though he might not credit himself with doing so. Indeed, the conceptual frame of the poem, if so heavy a phrase is appropriate to it, is held together by the way "dream" gets stated in terms of waking experience, waking experience in terms of "dream." This is an occasion when the precondition of metaphor itself seems to be that the normal distinction between dreaming and waking be suspended. Even the verb tenses of the poem contribute to this suspension: before he begins his last day of apple-picking he "could tell" while awake "What form my dreaming was about to take." It is as if he woke before work into a kind of reality that had all the strangeness of dream, and he looks to sleep after work almost in the hope of dispelling the dream:

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.

There is both daring and genius in the lines that follow: "But I was well/ Upon my way to sleep before it fell." So confused are states of consciousness here that perhaps we are to think that he slept all through the day of work, perhaps he dreamed the day itself, with its "hoary grass." This grass could be real, "hoary" in the sense that it is coated white with morning frost; or it could be other-worldly grass, "hoary" in the sense of "ancient," part of a mythic world derived from the Bible and Milton. We are not to decide which is which; we are instead meant to equivocate. The larger possibilities are made inextricable in our, and in his, experience from smaller, more detailed ones. Thus, "essence" can mean something abstract, like an attribute, or even a spirit that is fundamental to winter nights, and it is also something very specific to apple-picking, the perfume of a harvest. So wonderfully does the language of the poem subvert any easy regulation that some readers might want to think of the "perfume" in Herbert's "life" or in King's "Contemplation upon Flowers" or in Frost's own "Unharvested" which emanates from a soul that has sanctified itself. So, too, with "harvest." It is called a "great harvest," and while "great" can refer to numbers - "There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch" - it soon begins to accumulate other than quantitative implications in its linkage to the word "cherish," the phrase "not let fall," and the reminder, in the suddenly exalted phrasing of "struck the earth" (when the word "ground" might have been used), that the ladder was pointed not at the "sky" but "toward heaven." The phrasing has a Marvellian reticence, only a bit less pronounced than in "The Silken Tent" where the "central cedar pole" is "its pinnacle to heavenward."

The apple-picker (and Frost) seems almost reluctantly involved in these implications. Perhaps that is one reason why he is "overtired" of a harvest "I myself desired." The intensity of labor has brought him in touch with a vocabulary of "apples," "trees," "scent," "ladders," "harvests," of ascents and descents that make it impossible for him not to say one thing in terms of another. To speak of apples is to speak of the Fall and the discovery of the benefits from it that both require and repay human toil. The only explicitly metaphorical statement in the entire, highly metaphoric poem - the only time the apple-picker tries directly to generalize his experience ("One can see . . ."), and the only spot where he admits to a sense of audience ("As I describe . . . ) - occurs at the end:

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.

It is appropriate to the whole intention of the poem that where the apple-picker sets out wakefully to accomplish what he has all along been doing in a daze, unconsciously - to make metaphors and to generalize on his experience - the result is a tangle of confusions. He is a successful "poet" only when he does not try to be. Obviously, the "woodchuck" could not "say" anything, and its capacity to make a metaphoric discrimination between its own and human sleep is rendered comic by the speaker's ascription to himself of the power only to "describe" the coming on of sleep. "Just some human sleep" sounds at first like an unfortunate infusion of the coy Frost - one of those calls for a trivially self-deprecating irony that reveal at times his peculiar embarrassment with the power of his own sincerities. But the line is saved from disingenuousness, just barely, by the "fact" that in his overtired state the apple-picker might indeed want a sleep equivalent to the hibernation of a woodchuck rather than a "human sleep." His sleep will be human precisely because it will be a disturbed, dream- and myth-ridden sleep. Human sleep is more than animal sleep for the very reason that it is bothered by memories of what it means to pick apples. After that famous picking in the Garden, human life, awake or sleeping, has been a dream, and words are compacted of the myths we have dreamt of the fall and redemption of souls.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

Jeffrey Meyers: On "After Apple-Picking"

"After Apple-Picking" has often been compared to Keats’ "Ode to Autumn," as if it were primarily a celebration of harvest. But its elevated diction (quite distinct from anything else in the book) as well as its images, mood and theme, all suggest a greater affinity with Keats' :Ode to a Nightingale." In that weary, drowsy poem the speaker longs to escape through art, symbolized by the nightingale, from the pain of the real world and wants to melt into the welcome oblivion of death:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains     My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains     One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk,

Frost's narrator, standing on the earth but looking upward, is also suspended between the real and the dream world:

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree Toward heaven still And there's a barrel that I didn't fill.

The long and short lines, the irregular rhyme scheme, the recurrent participles (indicating work), the slow tempo and incantatory rhythm all suggest that repetitive labor has drained away his energy. The perfume of the apples - equated through "essence" with profound rest - has the narcotic, almost sensual effect of ether. Frost's speaker, like Keats', is suffused with drowsy numbness, yet enters the visionary state necessary to artistic creation:

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.

The glassy piece of ice - which distorts, transforms and makes the familiar seem strange - is, like Keats' nightingale, a symbol of art. In his dream state (the word "sleep" occurs six times in the poem),

Magnified apples appear and disappear, Stem end and blossom end, And every fleck of russet showing clear,

and he rhythmically sways on the ladder when the boughs bend with his weight. As the apples are gathered - and the poem written - he becomes both physically and mentally exhausted:

For I have had too much Of apple-picking: I am overtired Of the great harvest I myself desired.

He needs to regenerate himself, like the hibernating woodchuck, by a long, deathlike winter sleep, so he will be ready to reenter the poet's dream world and achieve another spurt of creativity. In "After Apple-Picking" Frost achieves a perfect fusion of pastoral and poetic labor.

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

John J. Conder: On "After Apple-Picking"

The central problems of the poem are posed in the opening lines of its conclusion with the introduction of the ambiguous word "trouble" and the provocative image of "sleep": "One can see what will trouble / This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is." Although the trouble and the "sleep" are intimately connected in the lines, for purposes of analysis it is best to keep them separate. The speaker himself does so, since he apparently knows what will trouble his sleep but is uncertain about the kind of sleep overtaking him. Arranged in the order most convenient for answering them, two questions emerge in "After Apple-Picking": What is the nature of the sleep? What is the nature of the trouble?

A complex of familiar references points to death as one possible form of sleep. The very situation of the poem, a surcease from picking apples, recalls the Garden of Eden from which, after the apple was picked (and eaten), man was expelled into a world of sin and death. The speaker affirms that he was "well" on his way to sleep even before his morning venture with the sheet of ice. Since life is a process ending in death, the speaker's comment, juxtaposed against the reference to "heaven," promotes the possibility that the speaker may be journeying to an immortal sleep. The season of the year emphasizes nature's death, while the woodchuck's hibernation suggests a pattern of death and resurrection.

Intriguing though these references are, a reader familiar with Frost's playful ways ("I like to fool," he said) knows better than to take them hastily at face value. The most popular reading rejects the possibility of death. Since the speaker's dream, according to this account, represents an ideal rooted in the real world, (his ability to dream about a job well done represents his heaven on earth. His capacity for contemplation sets him apart from the inferior woodchuck, though he does not affirm that man has an immortal soul.

Insofar as this reading rejects death and immortality as one possible form of sleep in "After Apple-Picking," the commentary is consistent with a general opinion that Frost is nonteleological in his thought. Since he neither affirms nor denies that the emergence of mind suggests ultimate meaning in the universe, Frost would necessarily remain neutral in his attitude toward immortality. But if the speaker's dream and sleep exist in life, then to assert that, after his labors, the speaker "is now looking not into the world of effort but the world of dream, of the renewal," is to oversimplify the poem. This view identifies the dream (interpreted as pleasurable) with the sleep (seen as a time for contemplation as well as renewal) and in the process limits both. Such a reading qualifies the word "trouble" into insignificance (to be troubled by a lovely dream is to be superior to the woodchuck, who cannot dream) and oversimplifies the speaker's attitude toward his experience. Given the feats of association that he makes, given the fact that he speaks in contraries, the speaker's attitude toward his sleep is far more complicated than at first seems clear, and his trouble far more real than might be supposed.

The speaker's attitude toward his sleep is complicated because of the possible kinds of sleep overtaking him. To be sure, this may be a night's sleep from which the speaker will awake, refreshed, ready to turn to those "fresh tasks" mentioned by the puzzled speaker of "The Wood-Pile." This possibility is supported by the reference to "night"; it is at "night" that he is "drowsing off"; the speaker, having completed the last of his labors as best he could, may be about to go to bed.

But the association of night with "essence of winter sleep" gives "night" a metaphoric context and so expands its meaning. Indeed, a simple night's sleep seems an improbable meaning, since the speaker was "well" upon his way to sleep before he dropped the "pane of glass" in the morning. Perhaps, then, his drowsy state may be part of the "essence of winter sleep"; that is, perhaps it is a sleep similar to nature's. Enough correspondences between the human and natural worlds exist to dictate this as one possible kind of sleep. The speaker's apple-picking ceases as the year nears conclusion, and his "drowsing off" is associated with "essence of winter sleep":

Essence of winter sleep is on the night, The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

If his sleep is to be like nature's, what then is the point of the reference to the woodchuck? Since the woodchuck surely could not ". . . say whether it's like his / Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, / Or just some human sleep," the speaker's avowal to the contrary apparently reduces the conclusion to mere whimsy. Presumably woodchucks do not dream and do not desire great harvests. Men do. Presumably men do not go into physical hibernation for months. Woodchucks do. But the point of the reference to the woodchuck is not simply to create a contrast between a human and an animal sleep but also to introduce an implied comparison—an inexact analogy between the speaker's sleep and the sleep of nature. If only man has the potential to desire great harvests, his desires may follow a cycle similar to nature's. They may wax and wane like (or with) the seasons; they may emerge, as the woodchuck does in the spring, or lie dormant for months, as the woodchuck does in winter.

For the man who is ". . . overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired," such an analogy carries with it its own measure of reassurance. Assuming that the desire for harvests and the act of harvesting together are an emblem of man's creative spirit working its will on the world, a reader can see that implicit in this situation is the question: Will my desire, my will, my talents be resurrected, directed toward reaping new harvests? Although he would find it more comforting to think that "just some human sleep" is a single night's sleep which will restore his powers so that he can turn to "fresh tasks," he can be reassured by the analogy between man and, the seasons nonetheless. His desires will lie dormant longer, but they will surely be revived, as nature is. . . .

. . . The speaker himself is uncertain of the analogy, speculating whether his sleep is like the woodchuck's, ". . . as I describe its coming on, / Or just some human sleep" (italics mine). As he has described that sleep coming on, indeed, the speaker clearly has been speaking contraries. The analogy with nature which his associations establish are, in the process of his speaking, undermined by suggestions that the sleep will be different from nature’s.

Those suggestions become explicit in the contrast between the sleep of the woodchuck and "just some human sleep." Precisely because the implied comparison between the speaker's sleep and the woodchuck's is undone by the power of the contrast (men can only have a human sleep), the assurance offered by the comparison with nature is also retracted. The contrast between the two kinds of sleep, furthermore, has been anticipated from the beginning of the poem, thus providing the fullest impact to the concluding line, "Or just some human sleep."

From the outset, nature seems to have become alien to the speaker. The first section concludes with the speaker's commenting that he is no longer interested in picking apples, in appropriating nature to his own uses: "But I am done with apple-picking now." The parallel between his drowsiness and the "essence of winter sleep" is, at best, tenuous, held together by an uncommitted colon in the last line of the statement, "Essence of winter sleep is on the night, / The scent of apples: I am drowsing off." The "essence," in short, is more directly associated with "the scent of apples" than with the speaker's sleep. The parallel tenuously established by the colon breaks down in the next section, which describes the strange sight of the winter world through a sheet of ice. Perhaps he does see through this "glass" "the world of hoary grass," but even that is not certain, and no other object in the external world he views is mentioned. Before he describes the "form" of his dreaming, he significantly lets the pane of ice fall and break, an action in stark contrast to his behavior during the harvest, when he took special pains to keep the apples from falling. Of course, since the ice is melting, the gesture is perfectly normal. Deliberate mention of the detail, nonetheless, suggests his alienation from nature. Once he could handle it (in the literal and metaphoric senses of that term); now he cannot.

If the speaker is divorced from nature, then what would "just some human sleep" be? One can concede that the speaker is physically and mentally fatigued, his desire for a "great harvest" satiated. In that case it is possible that he is entering the world of renewal, that his sleep will be composed of pleasant dreams, a contemplation of the ideal based on the real; and it is possible that his trouble will be minimal, composed of the physical aftereffects of too much apple-picking: the "ache" and the "pressure" retained by his "instep arch"; the feel of the swaying ladder; the "rumbling sound" of apples. But it is not at all certain that his is the sleep of renewal. Indeed, to argue with certainty that this is the sleep of renewal, a reader would have to rest his case on the analogy between man's cycle and nature's, an analogy that seems to fail in the poem. Such an analogy, furthermore, would not be consistent with Frost's point of view, one which sharply differentiates man from nature. . . . Both Frost’s habit of speaking contraries and his point of view toward nature militate against a simplistic view of sleep and argue for a darker side of "just some human sleep."

That darker side can be discerned by recalling what is lost by the failure of the analogy between man and nature. If nature can renew itself automatically, man, viewed as distinct from nature, cannot be assured of such renewal. Nature has her unknown source of creative revival. What is man's? The source of his creativity is the assumption that his harvest has value, that the activity is worthwhile. If the speaker questions the purpose of his activity, doubts the value of his harvest, then indeed his may be a sleep of the creative powers, one which will last until the doubts are removed.

The speaker makes it eminently clear that he once highly valued his harvest. Simply put, he "desired" a "great harvest," and the desire was sufficiently strong to justify extraordinary discipline and control: "There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, / Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall." The sense of value which he associated with manual contact ("cherish in hand") is confirmed in the lines immediately following:

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 crucial phrase, "As of no worth," is ambiguous and reflects the speaker's habit of "talking contraries," of retracting "everything . . . [he] said, nearly. "For to describe the fallen apples as "of no worth" is to imply their worth. It is not possible to tell whether the speaker, now commenting with the advantage of hindsight, would have characterized these apples in the same way during his actual apple-picking. What is clear is that this description of his past activities implies a sense of relative values (fallen apples are inferior to harvested ones), but a highly ambiguous one. Since the speaker has declared that ". . . I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired," he is in a mood to apply the same logic of talking contraries to the harvest itself. If the fallen apples are as "of no worth," then he hints, the harvest itself is as of great worth, a description which implies its opposite. The exhausted speaker, in short, is in doubt about his values.

Doubts related to questions of value are in his mind as he recounts his apple-picking, so it is not surprising that the dream induced by his venture reflects his confusion. It is by no means certain, of course, whether the "dreaming" is confined to the visual description of the apples or whether it includes all the aftereffects of picking apples. Since this is probably more than a simple night's sleep, it is likely that the dream is much like one experienced when awake, as when a person still feels the rocking of the boat even after he has set foot on firm land. Assuming that the dream embraces, the full range of sensations, the reader can observe a striking contrast between the visual and the other sensory elements. Only the apples are "magnified"; there is no suggestion that the "ache," the "pressure," the swaying of the ladder and the rumbling of the apples are felt and heard more intensely than during the actual pursuit of the harvest. Not only are the apples larger than life; they are also autonomous, independent of the speaker's control as they appear in the mind's eye: "Magnified apples appear and disappear."

The erratic movement of the apples, certainly, may be quite consistent with the nature of this dream, one experienced when awake. Stare at an object long enough and its impression is retained after the eyes are closed. The eyelids blink shut, and the speaker sees apples. They flick open, and the apples vanish. Quite possibly the image so retained is magnified. But for readers concerned with the depth of the actual in Frost's poetry, such an explanation is hardly sufficient. Frost no doubt wants to show that the form of the speaker's dreaming is a consequence of the activity which inspired it, since the speaker concludes the dream with the statement, "For I have had too much / Of apple-picking: I am overtired" (italics mine), and then describes the apple-picking itself. To settle for a purely naturalistic explanation of the relationship between the two, however, is to limit the poem.

A comparison between the dream and the activity is revealing for what the dream leaves out, and such a comparison must be based on the visual element in the dream, since all the other elements are ascribable to purely natural aftereffects and bear no symbolic relationship to the whole point of picking as many apples as possible: to reap a great harvest. That sense of discipline associated with value during the apple-picking is not present in the dream. The apples are unrelated to the speaker, moving of their own accord, without his direction, his sense of purpose. Furthermore, they are all magnified; the distinction between those harvested and those lost does not exist. Gone is the speaker's sense of relative values. Associated with the statement ". . . I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired," their magnification and autonomy bring into bold relief the very doubts surfacing toward the end of his description of the actual venture of picking apples. He has literally lost sight of all the values of the harvest. If this is a happy sleep of contemplation, the happiness is highly qualified.

Concerned about his values, the speaker is also concerned about the nature of his sleep, a concern imaged in the contrast between himself and the woodchuck. As part of nature the woodchuck will automatically be renewed. But the speaker may need, for renewal, not simply rest, some period of dormancy, but also some certain knowledge of human values. And where is such knowledge to come from? Recall, this is a poem about what happens after apple-picking. Hardly an allegory either supporting or denouncing Christian doctrine, the work nonetheless relies on overtones of the Fall to enrich its complex meaning. When man first picked the apple, he was expelled from Eden to labor by the sweat of his brow, a consequence of his newly found knowledge of good and evil. The speaker lives in a fallen world where he has labored and sweated. But he gains no sure knowledge as Adam did. His ladder is pointed toward heaven only, and he has had to descend from it. Man can climb the ladder toward heaven, toward certainty, but when he returns, he discovers how little he has learned with certainty. He cannot even know the nature of his sleep, although the possibilities seem clear.

Perhaps his will be like the woodchuck's sleep, the sleep of nature, in the limited sense that his creative powers are subject to the same kind of cyclical movement observed in the seasons. At worst, this sleep would be like nature's in its duration, though not in its character (unlike nature, man can dream). Such a sleep, induced by physical and mental fatigue, is not a function of man's uncertain values. His values are certain; his ability to act on them, limited. This is the sleep of renewal.

This meaning of "sleep," though possible in the poem, seems obviated by the apparent failure of the analogy between man and nature. Although Frost allows for its possibility in the reference to the woodchuck, such a sleep seems inconsistent with his larger view of man and nature. A second possible sleep, not far removed from the first, is also ascribable to a straining of the physical and mental powers, a strain just severe enough to confuse the speaker's sense of values and to blur his sense of purpose. But if he originally possessed a firmly grounded sense of value and purpose, he can be reasonably certain he will awaken from this sleep, from this confusion about values. A good rest, a night's or a month's, will settle the matter. Thereafter, he can turn to "fresh tasks" with no need to investigate his values. Given Frost's larger poetic world, this meaning is the most likely. The will to live and to create provides the ground for man's values.

But in the world of "After Apple-Picking," recovery is not certain. Frost's "feats of association" are so complicated, his performance in hinting so masterful, that the poem suggests the possibility of a third kind of sleep. If the speaker's encounter with the apples has led him to question not just the nature, but the source of his values, then, hi sleep may be longer, even permanent. It is one matter to recover values lost because of fatigue. It is another to be forced to return to their source, particularly if that source is only the "I myself" who "desired." For when desire fails and values falter, what source outside the self can restore desire? In "After Apple-Picking," the ladder only points toward heaven.

What will trouble the speaker's sleep, whatever sleep it is? He is only falling asleep in this poem, and he does not yet know which sleep his will be. Its duration will determine its nature. It is his uncertainty as to when (or whether) he will awaken which will be carried into his sleep, troubling it. Ironically enough, only when he awakens will he know what sleep it is—or, rather, was. 

From "'After Apple-Picking': Frost's Troubled Sleep." Frost: Centennial Essays. Copyright © 1973 by University Press of Mississippi.

Reuben A. Brower: On "After Apple-Picking"

There is no question here of tones playing against a traditional form; rather, an original rhythmic form grows out of the dramatic setting and the initial commitment in tone. Pre-sleep and sleepy reminiscence of the day condition all that is said, and the speaker's first words show what form his dreamy talk will take. His 'ladder's sticking through a tree'—which is accurate and earthy—but 'through a tree / Toward heaven.' As the apple-picker drowses off, narrative of fact about the ice skimmed from the trough gets mixed with dream, and the time references of the tenses become a bit confused:

But I was well Upon my way to sleep before it fell, And I could tell What form my dreaming was about to take.

'Could tell' and 'was about to take' seem to refer both to the morning and to the present state of 'drowsing off.'

Everything said throughout the poem comes to the reader through sentences filled with incantatory repetitions and, rhymes and in waves of sound linked by likeness of pattern. From the opening lines, apparently matter-of-fact talk falls into curious chain-like sentences, rich in end-rhymes and, echoes of many sorts. But although the voice seems to be lapsing into the rhyming fits of insomnia, the fits shape themselves into distinct and subtly varied patterns. Each phase of reminiscence or reflection forms a unit of syntax, all except two without a final stop within the unit; and each unit becomes in effect a stanza marked off by one or two rhyming 'seals.' The last word either introduces a new rhyme that will be picked up in the next stanza:

. . . off.                 2 . . . break.           3 . . . it is.                9

or else it completes a rhyme used earlier and with one exception not used again:

. . . now.            1

. . . take.            4

. . . clear.           5

. . . in.                 6

. . . desired.        7

. . . worth.          8

. . . sleep.           10

The rhymes of the first type link stanza to stanza. Those of the second type increase the sense of monotonous sameness within each phase, as memories of waking fact and their sleepy distortions become impossible to tell apart. Since the word 'sleep' (10) has already occurred five times, it completes the rhyme and the poem with a special finality of sound and meaning.

The meaning implied by the self-hypnosis and dreamy confusion of rhythm is finely suggested in the image of 'the world of hoary grass,' the blurred seeing of morning that anticipates the night vision. This blurring of experience focuses in the central metaphor of the poem, 'essence of winter sleep.' 'Essence' is both the abstract 'ultimate nature' of sleep and the physical smell, 'the scent of apples'—a metaphysical image in T. S. Eliot's sense of the term. Fragrance and sleep blend, as sight and touch merge in

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight. . .

The metaphor is renewed in many other expressions, for example, in 'Magnified apples,' which are apples seen against the sky with daylight accuracy, and also great dream-like spheres. Other similarly precise details are 'blurred through the over-and-over way of recalling and describing them: 'stem end and blossom end,' 'load on load, 'ten thousand thousand.' The closing metaphor of the poem, the woodchuck's 'long sleep,' adds to the strangeness of 'winter sleep' by bringing in the non-human death-like sleep of hibernation. We are finally quite uncertain of what is happening, and that is what the poem is about:

One can see what will trouble This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

In these two lines tone and rhythm work together beautifully, implying a great deal in relation to Frost's metaphor. The slight elevation of 'One can see' recalls the more mysterious seeing of the morning, just as the almost banal lyricism of 'This sleep of mine' sustains the rhythm of dream-confusion. The rest of the second line, barely iambic, barely rhyming, casual and rough, assures us that the speaker has at least one toe in reality. The contrasts of tone and rhythm, fitting the puzzlement of the sleepers state, look ahead to the woodchuck's sleep and back to the initial balance of tones in 'sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still.' The poem is absorbed with 'states-between,' not only of winter sleep, but of all similar areas where real and unreal appear and disappear. 'After Apple-Picking' illustrates exactly Santayana's remark that 'the artist is a person consenting to dream of reality.' The 'consent' in this instance is implied in the perfection of the form.

We have now moved well beyond voices and rhythms to 'the figure a poem makes.' For we should hardly have arrived at the amused confusion of the end of 'After Apple-Picking' unless the poem had carried us on a form that was more than rhythmic, however marvelous. It is characteristic of Frost that the 'sentencing' and the sense are surely controlled, that daylight accuracy and daylight humor are present in statement and tone. It is also characteristic that the figure of sound grows from a metaphorical center.

From The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower

Robert Faggen: On "After Apple-Picking"

"After Apple-Picking," one of Frost's greatest lyrics, blends the myth of the Fall with consequences of modern science. The "two-pointed ladder" figures as both the instrument and the technology of tropism toward "heaven" that ultimately leads to the oneiric hell of uncertainty and of waste and struggle. Order, progress, and the harvest of knowledge are as much a part of the inextricable order of the garden as the great tree upon which we sway precariously:

[lines 1-6]

In such a casual phrase as "there may be two or three / Apples I didn't pick upon some bough" we feel the speaker's indifference toward perfection. The rest of the poem moves away from heaven, which has been the theological place of perfection, to meditation on exhaustion from contemplation of the world's immense ungraspability, its superfecundity and waste.

The image of the ladder will evoke that of Jacob's dream as well as Emerson's more metaphysical use of that ladder in "Experience." We also see the ladder failing as a human construct by which to transcend nature. The opening line of Frost's poem enforces a sense of physicality—"two-pointed" and "sticking through a tree." The latter phrase sounds sexually suggestive, as does the "long scythe" in "Mowing." Unlike Jacob's, this ladder is a human construct that rests and depends on the tree and is left to nature as an artifact of human effort. And the speaker's oncoming dream is not of angels but, rather, of the details of apples and of labor. If anything is retained in the allusion to Jacob, it is the sense of an impending struggle.

In Lyric Time Sharon Cameron has pointed out that the speaker's dreaming, begun before the event of the poem, appears to begin again during the poem and announces its recommencement sometime after the poem. I will add to this observation that Frost is repeating the strange mixture of fact, dream, labor, and knowledge found in "Mowing"—"The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows"—reminding us of the inescapable limits of consciousness. In "The Koine of Myth," Northrop Frye describes the way human types persist, and he specifically addresses the figure of the ladder. The ladder, he observes, began to break down as a metaphor after the eighteenth century as a construct that symbolized the path from God to earth, the scala (Latin for ladder), or chain of being. In moving between dream and objectivity, the ladder and the human laborer sway precariously on the verge of disintegration. As Frye observed: "Within the limitations of human life, the most highly developed types are those whose lives have become, as we say, a legend, that is, lives no longer contemplating a vision of objective revelation or imprisoned within a subjective dream." In Frost, to use Frye's terms, action and awareness continually clash with each other in a way that ultimately prohibits the establishing of a lasting mythos. "Essence" is inextricably tied to matter and to sleep, "the scent of apples" and " drowsing off." The sensuous pull of the earth overcomes the speaker:

[lines 8-17]

Though claiming some mystery in "the strangeness" he "got from looking through a pane of glass," the speaker reminds us that this looking glass is but a temporary instrument and inextricable part of the fluidity from which it came: a drinking trough used for bodily rather than spiritual sustenance. It both enables and distorts sight. If the faces God as Job did in the theophany or as Jacob did after wrestling at Peniel, it is an overwhelming and immediate physical manifestation of the facts of growth, "stem end and blossom end," as well as the "flecks of russet" and not the Pauline promise of seeing God spiritually face to face in the future. His dreams are not of angels or of heaven but of the troubling abundance and waste of apples that are beyond his "picking," expressing the physical "ache" of his foot, his sensuous desire to touch. Moreover, the preponderance of first-person pronouns expresses an ego inspired and burdened by its own desire:

[lines 18-29]

The obsession with the physical and sensuous approaches a literalism by which the speaker seems to transfer his anxieties of exhaustion to the apples, so many thousands of which are beyond the control of his selection. "Magnified apples" merges both the oneiric world of human desire and the scientific world of instrumental examination. Close examination of nature in its great plurality and in its waste ultimately diminishes the significance of the observer. At once he sees ,the massive abundance and waste of nature, which overwhelm his own desire:

[lines 30-36]

The largeness implied by "ten thousand thousand" and "earth" along with the diminished sense of human control parallels the grandeur Darwin attributes to natural selection in contrast to man's selection. . . .

If man is a laborer, Darwin tells us, then nature is a far greater one. Our "view" is "imperfect." The laborer of "After Apple-Picking" works in a state that is a continual confusion of dream and knowledge, between the human idea of nature and its elusive reality always on the verge of transformation. A consciousness of a limited view and of a larger process of selection to which we are subjected is the darker fruit of our own knowledge. And what are wasted apples for humans who select for beauty and perfection become food for a hibernating woodchuck or further the spread of apple seeds.

The apple tree evokes the loss and displacement of the Fall—the Tree of Knowledge. But it also becomes the dominant metaphor of life and death in the new scripture of Darwin. Darwin's Tree of Life represents both nature's diversity as well as the common descent and destiny of all living creatures including man. In his emphasis on survival no creature or branch is given certain privilege in the hierarchy; no future is certain. It is therefore not surprising that, after considering , the apples ''as of no worth," the apple picker wonders about the relation of his own "sleep," a metaphor for loss of control and death in our self-consciousness, to that of another creature, "the woodchuck," for whom sleep hibernation is at least protection against the environment:

[lines 37-42]

The apple picker, however, turns to another creature at the end of his labor only in hope of finding a way out of his troubling isolation and fears—and there may be no way out of what he can "describe." He persists on the ladder, somehow failing to accept the biology of sleep (and the purpose of dreaming to keep us asleep), while other creatures have gone. The gerund in the tide expresses the perpetual refusal to submit, as does the gerund in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Just in the final line expresses a diminished sense of "human sleep," a diminished sense of the labor, knowledge, and aspiration by which our species once thought itself elect.


From Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Michigan

Katherine Kearns: On "After Apple-Picking"

In Frost's poetry any deviation, not only from the iambic foot but from the iambic pentameter line as well, is an important marker of the speaker's state of mind, his control, and his capacity for irony. "After Apple Picking" keeps resolutely returning to pentameter lines, but the speaker is drowsy, and the opening twelve-syllable line - "My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree" - is like the last murmured words before sleep. Of course, it also represents, as does the whole masterful structure of the poem, Frost's own precise control of tone, as he creates a speaker who is precariously "upon [his] way to sleep." This fatigued vulnerability manifests itself in an escalating slippage of control from ten-syllable lines to foreshortened lines like "For all / That struck the earth," or eleven-syllable lines like "No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble." And as the speaker moves toward an increasing intuition of the symbolic underpinnings of his exhaustion, which is the result not just of his picking apples but of other more visceral frustrations and fears, the frequency of these variations increases. (Lines 1, 2, 14, 16, 18, 19, 25, 27, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 39, and 42 vary from the pentameter; only lines 18 and 34 are extra-syllabic.) His awareness and fear of this loss of control are manifested in the final lines:

The woodchuck could say whether it's like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, Or just some human sleep.

What he fears is not so much death as the very state the poem has mimicked - that is, a suspension between not-life and not-death where language is narcotized toward incoherence and uncontrol.

. . . .

Matter . . . makes itself felt even as it capitulates to its own variable nature. If the apple will fall in "After Apple Picking," if it, like the speaker on his way to dreaming, is about to go bruised to the cider heap where it will be pressed into an essence of itself, it nonetheless maintains through all its transmutations an identifiable appleness. The apple holds, against the authoritative prosodic erosion of waking reality into dream state, its own sensual place as an essential ingredient in the spell to which the speaker is succumbing. It glows, its russet flecks showing clear and its scent in the air, as potent as Snow White's apple, while the ice mirror has broken and the speaker is moving toward a hibernatory trance. Such things reify the potent opacity of the word, which is invested with an entire history of meanings, incrementally awakened within the volatile substance of the poem.


From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Richard Gray: On "After Apple-Picking"

On the simplest narrative level, the poem describes how, after a strenuous day of apple-picking, the speaker dreams dreams in which his previous activities return to him 'magnified', blurred and distorted by memory and sleep. On a deeper level, however, it presents us with an experience in which the world of normal consciousness and the world that lies beyond it meet and mingle. 'I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight', says the narrator, and this strangeness, the 'essence of winter sleep', is something he shares with the reader. 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:

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 the 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.

As usual, in this poem Frost hovers between the daylight world of commonsense reality and the dream world of possibility, the voices of sense and of song, the visions of the pragmatist and the prophet, the compulsions of the road and the seductions of the woods. This time, however, he appears to belong to both realms, rather than hold back from a full commitment to either. Dualism is replaced by an almost religious sense of unity here; and the tone of irony, quizzical reserve, completely disappears in favour of wonder and incantation.


From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by the Longman Group UK Limited.

George Montiero: On "After Apple-Picking"

Several of Frost's finest poems through the years reflected his fascination with the myth of Adam and Eve and his preoccupation with the human consequences of their fall: what he called, in "Kitty Hawk," "Our instinctive venture / Into what they call / The material / When we took that fall / From the apple tree."

[. . . .]

In "After Apple- Picking" the matter is handled a bit differently. There the poet-farmer describes his concern regarding the "coming on" of sleep which will end his long day's labor. For he knows that troubled sleep and repetitive dreams, resulting directly from the daytime activity which has brought him to the harvest and the "wealth" he covets, are his meed. The remembered sensations of apple picking—the "bodily memories of the experience (what we farmers used to call kinesthetic images)"—will prevail in his sleep and will disturb his rest. In memory, but seemingly even stronger than memory, there will nag the "scent" of apples, the "sight" through the skimmed morning ice, the "ache" and "pressure" on the instep arch, the "hearing" of the "rumbling" from the cellar bin. "If you gather apples in the sunshine . . . and shut your eyes," wrote Emerson, "you shall still see apples hanging in the bright light." In sum, Frost knows not whether that sleep will be like the animal hibernation (the "long sleep") of the woodchuck or, as the poet puts it ironically, "just some human sleep."

The country details of "After Apple-Picking" only partly mask the poet's concern with the mythic consequences of the Fall. If Eve's curse, after she tasted of the fruit from the forbidden tree, was that she would "bring forth children," Adam's curse, after joining Eve in the risk, was that he would live henceforth by the "sweat" of his "face"—that is, he would sustain his life by his own labor. The irony beyond this curse is Frost's subject. Adam's curse was to labor, but another way of putting it is that Adam and his descendants were doomed to live within, and at the mercy of, the senses. Significantly, Frost defines the curse still further: man will not cease to labor even in rest.

In the very desire to profit from his long hours of work, the poet has made himself vulnerable, in a wry sense, to the dictum that "the sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep" (Ecclesiastes 5:12). The rub is that the poet is both laborer and "rich" man. He has the "great harvest" he desired; but he has labored long and faithfully in bringing about that harvest—certainly too long and possibly too faithfully to enable him to reap the reward of peaceful, untroubled rest that is promised to the diligent laborer.

The poem can be seen as an elaboration of Genesis: Adam's curse was not merely that he was doomed to live by the " sweat" of his "face" but also that the curse to labor would follow him into his rest and his dreams. Such, inevitably, is the way after apple picking—and such is the paradox of Adam's curse, even as it extends to the poet-farmer of New England.

But Thoreau had viewed man's curse in another way. "It is not necessary," he wrote in Walden, "that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do." Indeed, as he had written earlier in Walden, the problem was that "men labor under a mistake. . . . [for] the better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate" commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal." Behind Frost's poem, however, is the recognition of all that Thoreau says about man's misguided labors and bootless cupidity and, of course, in the person of the apple picker a tacit disregard of these injunctions from an "old book" and the new book that is Walden. Indeed, Frost's apple picker, "overtired / Of the great harvest" he has himself desired, has made the Thoreauvian mistake of being "so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. . . . the laboring man . . . has no time to be anything but a machine. . . . The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling." Something like Thoreau's admonitions, then, lies behind the uneasiness of Frost's apple picker's sleep ("One can see what will trouble / This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is").


From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.