"After Apple-Picking strikes a perfect balance between Frost’s dual identity as a farmer and poet, since it describes aspects of the human condition applicable to both groups of people, albeit in vastly different ways," writes Devi Sastry.
In spite of the illusion of simplicity that comes with the use of rhyme, the poetry of Robert Frost features a duality that doesn’t allow for simplistic interpretation. Frost has a way of subtle implication that results in double meanings and a sense of ambiguity about the deeper significance of a poem, and he uses this to his advantage, appealing to various audiences. His poems often provide an exploration of more spiritual or intellectual themes using imagery that is expressly tangible. As America’s farmer poet, he often described the idea of harvest and the season of autumn.
In a general sense, seasonal imagery associated with autumn is usually used to denote a change or an ending. While the beauty of the season is acknowledged, it is coupled with the temporary nature of this beauty, which often compels a poet to reckon with the temporary nature of their own life. Perhaps the most fitting example of such a poem by Frost is After Apple-Picking. The title in itself invokes a distinctly autumnal activity, but by using the word “after,” Frost reinforces the temporariness of the activity, and therefore, the season. Even within the first two lines, Frost calls to mind the afterlife by remarking that his ladder is pointed “toward heaven.” The ladder serves as a device to indicate the path before him, and he notes his final destination, using heaven to mean both the sky and the afterlife.
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.
Interpreting the poem from a dualistic standpoint, the apples left unpicked signify both the more general work Frost has left undone, as well as the poems and literary potential Frost has left untapped. There is some ambiguity as to whether the coming winter represents death or a less permanent halting force, and Frost acknowledges this in some sense at the close of the poem. In any case, the apple-picking and other work will have to cease soon, and the speaker senses the signs of the coming season with and internal lethargy. By acknowledging that the speaker was “well / Upon [his] way to sleep,” Frost also notes the inevitability of winter and an end.
That the dreams of the speaker too revolve around apple-picking indicates the pervasiveness of the activity and the self-reckoning that comes with it. This sentiment is not only evident in the persistent images of the apples, but also in the lingering physicality of weariness that the speaker describes. Though the images may not seem particularly sinister, there is a sense of haunting in the dream, and if the apples are representative of the work the speaker has left undone, their images seem to taunt him even in sleep - a reminder of his inability to complete the work. Though there is definitely a sense of regret at having left some apples unpicked, there is also the knowledge that the speaker could never have possibly picked them all. In terms of the metaphor, Frost laments his inability to tap adequately into his poetic potential, since there are too many poems to write, and attempting to pen them all might not do any of them justice; there are too many to “not let fall.”
The winter sleep approaching the speaker is the end of abundance and productivity in the sense of harvest, but this can be extended to all work. Frost ends the poem by questioning the nature of his coming winter sleep, and whether it will be a hibernation or “just some human sleep.” Even though there is a sense of finality in terms of production, it doesn’t seem like a permanent end, since winter and sleep are both temporary steps in a cyclical process. After Apple-Picking strikes a perfect balance between Frost’s dual identity as a farmer and poet, since it describes aspects of the human condition applicable to both groups of people, albeit in vastly different ways. The fear of having left things undone at the hands of an inevitable end is one that troubles both the minds of farmers and poets, and in some sense, all of humanity. By writing dualistically, Frost highlights the universality of this sentiment, noting the significance of autumn as the close of a productive time.