The overall tone of the poem might not support such a reading, however; nothing else about it is particularly ominous—and Frost can do ominous when he wants to. How we ultimately interpret the tone of the poem has much to do with how we interpret the harvest. Has it been a failure? Certainly there is a sense of incompleteness—”a barrel that I didn’t fill.” The speaker’s inner resources give out before the outer resources are entirely collected. On the other hand, the poet speaks only of “two or three apples” remaining, and these only “may” be left over. Do we detect satisfaction, then? The speaker has done all that was within his power; what’s left is the result of minor, inevitable human imperfection. Is this, then, a poem about the rare skill of knowing when to quit honorably? This interpretation seems reasonable.
Yet if the speaker maintains his honor, why will his sleep be troubled? There were “ten thousand thousand”—that is to say, countless—fruit to touch, and none could be fumbled or it was lost. Did the speaker fumble many? Did he leave more than he claims he did? Or are the troubled dreams a nightmare magnification and not a reflection of the real harvest?
Lines 28-29 are important: “I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” If there has been failure or too great a strain on the speaker, it is because the speaker has desired too great a harvest. He saw an impossible quantity of fruit as a possibility. Or he saw a merely incredible quantity of fruit as possibility and nearly achieved it (at the cost of physical and mental exhaustion).
When we read “After Apple-Picking” metaphorically, we may want to look at it as a poem about the effort of writing poetry. The cider-apple heap then makes a nice metaphor for saved and recycled bits of poetry, and the long sleep sounds like creative (permanent?) hibernation. This is one possible metaphoric substitution among many; it seems plausible enough (though nowise definitive or exclusive). However, our search for “ulteriority” may benefit from respecting, not replacing, the figure of the apples. Apple picking, in Western civilization, has its own built-in metaphorical and allegorical universe, and we should especially remember this when we read a poet whose work frequently revisits Eden and the Fall (c.f. “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” “It is Almost the Year Two Thousand,” “The Oven Bird”). When the poet speaks of “the great harvest I myself desired,” consider also what apples represent in Genesis: knowledge and some great, punishable claim to godliness—creation and understanding, perhaps. This sends us scurrying back to lines 1and 2, where the apple-picking ladder sticks through the tree “Toward heaven still.” What has this harvest been, then, with its infinite fruits too many for one person to touch? What happens when such apples strike the earth—are they really of no worth? And looked at in this new light, what does it mean to be “done with apple-picking now”?
All of these questions are enough to make one forswear metaphor and limit oneself to a strict diet of literalness. But that isn’t nearly as much fun.