The Poems of Robert Frost | Study Guide

Robert Frost

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The Poems of Robert Frost | After Apple Picking | Summary



Abandoned by its owner, a "two-pointed ladder" stands sticking through the branches of an apple tree. The apple picker acknowledges that he is done with apple picking although he has left a single barrel empty and a few apples on the tree. He is in the drowsy state between sleep and waking and is already seeing the images in his soon-to-come dream. He will dream of monstrous apples, "ten thousand thousand fruit to touch." He will recall the scent of apples and feel the ladder sway. He will dream of what he has been trying, but has not quite managed, to achieve. Intimations of death invade his dream state, while at the same time memory leads him to wonder and to whimsy. Invoking "the woodchuck," he imagines the animal could say whether his sleep was the sleep (hibernation) of a woodchuck, "or just some human sleep."


"After Apple Picking" was published in North of Boston (1914). The image in the poem's opening provides context: A ladder leans against a limb in an apple tree, its two points directed to heaven. It suggests an Eden deserted, with its original inhabitants long gone. This setting is Frost's chosen landscape. The ladder, an intermediary between heaven and earth, has two points, which represent ideas or points of view. Hard work and ambition are the ladder's first point; memory is the second.

It is not clear whether the speaker is dead tired or on the brink of death. Part of Frost's power is that readers needn't decide. "I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired," the speaker says, for "There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch."

The speaker is a physically exhausted individual, haunted by his desire to gather all he could. It has become a nightmare. The distorted view through the ice pane represents what humans can see of the present reality of their own lives. As it melts, the speaker lets it drop and break. Past ambition has led to present exhaustion. Taken together, they represent both a life well spent and one's best energies squandered.

At the same time, the speaker's effort has been a noble one. He has tried to "play God," to "Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall" every apple. He knows the ones that fall will go to the "cider-apple heap / As of no worth." The language and image seem to evoke the biblical Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 10:29), in which Jesus says of the seemingly worthless sparrows, "Not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care." His efforts, while doomed, are worthy of a ladder pointed "toward heaven."

Perhaps what is most compelling in the poem is the tension between form and content. "After Apple Picking" is among the most beautiful poems Frost ever composed. The glories of ambition are recollected in monstrous images, indelible pain, and vertigo—all elements of a self-imposed nightmare. Despite this nightmare, the ease of the blank verse, the enjambments and the short lines, and the melody of the rhymes produce an elegiac music.

The woodchuck at the poem's end provides a twist typical of Frost. The speaker wonders about the nature of the sleep coming upon him, much as Shakespeare's Hamlet wonders "what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil." But this speaker is no Hamlet, a nobleman meditating about suicide. He is just an ordinary American pondering life's essential paradox: how much fun it is and how hard it is. The image of the woodchuck suggests a healthy resignation to the limits of his mortal body. His fate, whatever it might be, will be a natural phenomenon.

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