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. 5
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 10
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, 15
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. 20
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 25
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, 30
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 35
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 40
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
After a long day’s work, the speaker is tired of apple picking. He has felt drowsy and dreamy since the morning when he looked through a sheet of ice lifted from the surface of a water trough. Now he feels tired, feels sleep coming on, but wonders whether it is a normal, end-of-the-day sleep or something deeper.
This is a rhyming poem that follows no preordained rhyme scheme. “After Apple-Picking” is basically iambic, and mostly in pentameter, but line-length variants abound. Line 1, for example, is long by any standard. Line 32 is very short: one foot. The poem’s shorter lines of di-, tri-, and tetrameter serve to syncopate and sharpen the steady, potentially droning rhythm of pentameter. They keep the reader on her toes, awake, while the speaker drifts off into oblivion.
First, a comment on form. Throughout the poem, both rhyme and line-length are manipulated and varied with subtlety. The mystery of the rhymes—when will they come and how abruptly—keeps words and sounds active and hovering over several lines. We find the greatest separation between rhyming end-words at the poem’s conclusion. Sleep comes seven lines after its partner, heap, and in the interim, sleep has popped up three times in the middle of lines. Sleep is, in fact, all over the poem; the word appears six times. But the way it is delivered here, the last rhyme is masterful. Heap first rhymes internally with sleep, then again internally with sleep, and then again, and only pairs up with the end-word sleep in the poem’s last line. At this point, we’ve nearly forgotten heap.Sleep seems to rhyme with itself, with its repetition, like a sleepy mantra or a sleep-inducing counting of sheep. The poem arrives at final sleep not through a wham-bang rhyming couplet but more “sleepily.”
“There are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry, but the chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another, the pleasure of ulteriority.” This is Robert Frost in 1946, in an essay for The Atlantic Monthly. “After Apple-Picking” is about picking apples, but with its ladders pointing “[t]oward heaven still,” with its great weariness, and with its rumination on the harvest, the coming of winter, and inhuman sleep, the reader feels certain that the poem harbors some “ulteriority.”
“Final sleep” is certainly one interpretation of the “long sleep” that the poet contrasts with human sleep. The sleep of the woodchuck is the sleep of winter, and winter, in the metaphoric language of seasons, has strong associations with death. Hints of winter are abundant: The scent of apples is “the essence of winter sleep”; the water in the trough froze into a “pane of glass”; the grass is “hoary” (i.e., frosty, or Frosty). Yet is the impending death destructive or creative? The harvest of apples can be read as a harvest of any human effort—study, laying bricks, writing poetry, etc.—and this poem looks at the end of the harvest.
The sequence and tenses of the poem are a bit confusing and lead one to wonder what is dreamed, what is real, and where the sleep begins. It’s understandable that the speaker should be tired at the end of a day’s apple picking. But the poem says that the speaker was well on his way to sleep before he dropped the sheet of ice, and this presumably occurred in the morning. The speaker has tried and failed to “rub the strangeness” from his sight. Is this a strangeness induced by exhaustion or indicative of the fact that he is dreaming already? Has he, in fact, been dreaming since he looked through the “pane of glass” and entered a through-the-looking-glass world of “magnified apples” and the “rumbling sound / Of load on load of apples coming in”? Or is the sheet of ice simply a dizzying lens whose effect endures? If, in fact, the speaker was well on his way to sleep in the morning, does this lend a greater, more ominous weight to the long sleep “coming on” at the poem’s end?