Picking Apples and Existential Crises In Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”, the speaker drifts into sleep after a day’s work. The speaker begins with an opening concerning his apple-picking exploits. Tired after apple-picking for a while, he thinks back to the morning, whereupon he experiences a sort of dream state. After this, he thinks once again on his exhaustion and sleep and the poem ends. On the surface, this poem appears to be a simple observation about an apple-picking excursion. Beneath the exterior, however, one can extract many different implications and meanings. The text seems to deal largely with the speaker’s complicated psyche. Frost utilizes the simple task of apple-picking to explore the confusing area of human awareness.
The text is largely unclear and ambiguous about the speaker’s ability to stay awake. During the expository sentences, the speaker says that he is “done with apple-picking now… I am drowsing off” (6, 8). Despite initially expressing his inclination towards sleep, however, he reminisces to earlier in the day when he picks up a piece of ice off of a drinking trough. As he examined the ice, “it melted, and I let it fall and break. / But I was well / Upon my way to sleep before it fell” (13-15). The exact purpose of the ice here is open to debate – on one hand, it might just be an interesting occurance the speaker decides to mention. Once the ice falls, though, he enters what may be a dream-like state. In this moment, he appears to begin his struggle with awareness. In this state, he details “magnified apples [that] appear and disappear” (18). In this first part of the poem, Frost introduces what seems to be some kind of internal question of consciousness.
The speaker tires towards the end of his apple-picking experience, but he was also drowsy to begin with, as supported by the experience with the ice. Then he introduces a dream about apples, which should, chronologically according to the author’s tense, occur once morning is over. All in all, then, this leads one to wonder whether or not the speaker actually went apple-picking. Later, the speaker conveys confusion as to what kind of sleep he actually partakes in, if it is a “long sleep… or just some human sleep” (41, 42). The speaker does not appear to have any idea what state of mind he is in throughout the poem due to clues provided by the text, perhaps suggesting a larger issue.
On a higher level, the speaker communicates a suspicion that he will soon die. Initially, the poem’s meaning is incredibly murky. Digging deeper provides more support concerning the exact nature of the speaker’s lack of surety. Frost includes examples from the text which suggest that the debate of consciousness may parallel a debate of existence. The following passage openly references an afterlife: “my long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still” (1-2). Additionally, he feels a “strangeness” (9) after looking through the ice and then feeling drowsy. These two subtle clues give rise to a sensation of unease and doubt. Frost further assesses the questionable state of reality by referencing winter. After he finishes apple-picking, the “essence of winter is on the night” (7). Here, he presents a reference to the cold quality of winter in the air. Moreover, at the end of the poem, the speaker dwells on the quality of his sleep:
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 (38-42). Here, he refers to the woodchuck, akin to the groundhog, which allegedly predicts the amount of time winter lasts. The inclusion of winter in relation to sleep is telling: winter traditionally associates with death, giving evidence to a possible parallel between consciousness and existence. The “long sleep” in comparison to “human sleep” also insinuates death. Upon arriving at this level of understanding, then, the poem becomes a greater metaphor the speaker’s lack of surety about life.
Considering this new level of meaning, one can gather other metaphorical implications from the text. The ladder presents possibility for analysis. In the beginning of the poem, the ladder points “toward heaven still” (2). The ladder may represent the path of life, with the speaker’s destination hopefully being heaven. The metaphor extends to this example as well: “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” (21-23). After apple-picking for a while, the ladder starts to give way. This applies to life as well; after a while, the speaker grows old. Also, one can theorize that an apple signifies some sort of accomplishment in terms of life. The speaker speaks of “a barrel that I didn’t fill” (3) as well as “ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, / cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall” (30-31). Again, Frost could simply be commenting on a physical aspect of his experience – but on a metaphorical level, apples may signify missed opportunities in lie. Furthermore, the speaker mentions those apples
That struck the earth, No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, Went surely to the cider-apple heap As of no worth (33-36). These musings on apples must refer to shortcomings in the speaker’s life. There may have been multiple opportunities he failed to capitalize on, and that many of those opportunities just fell to the ground even if they were perfectly fine to begin with. In the end, it appears as if the speaker’s life was a struggle. He appears weighted down by life: “for I have had too much / of apple-picking: I am overtired” (28-29). The speaker’s questioning about death leads to a further struggle with coming to terms with his life.
In the grand scheme, this poem is complex. The first reading of this poem renders a casual response – it looks like a nice little narration of the speaker’s feelings after a day of apple-picking. Peeling back the layers leads to much deeper implications, however, as one begins to recognize the clash of reasoning. The speaker clearly feels a disheartening chaos, as evidenced by the odd application of tense and non-chronological ordering. The usage of objects such as the ladder or the apples speaks to the author’s mastery of metaphorical conventions. In the long run, Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” takes a look at the struggle of human existentiality.
Frost, Robert. “After Apple-Picking.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, 2007-13. Web. 19 Sep. 2013. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19975
After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost 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. 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. 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.