With a feeling for something traditional, today I pulled down a book of Robert Frost and came across one of his better known poems from the 1914 collection, North of Boston. The poem is “After Apple-Picking” and describes a time after a long day’s work when 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.
Frost once said, “After Apple-Picking” is about picking apples, but with its ladders pointing ‘toward 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.” Well, there is always something concealed in the poetry of Robert Frost though he himself was many times prone to discourage critical implications of the ‘ulterior’ in his work.
In this case Frost transforms an ordinary experience, into a meditation, a philosophical musing. He moves gradually away from harvesting apples to considering how life has been experienced fully despite the regrets and mistakes. Reference to winter in the poetry of Frost often carries implications of mortality. In this poem he wonders if his sleep will resemble the long hibernating sleep of the woodchuck.
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.