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.
–Robert Frost (1914)
Born in San Francisco, Frost spent most of his adult life in rural New England and his laconic language and emphasis on individualism in his poetry reflect this region. He attended Dartmouth and Harvard but never earned a degree, and as a young man with growing family he attempted to write poetry while working a farm or teaching school. American editors rejected his submitted poems. With considerable pluck Frost moved his family to England in 1912 and the following year a London publisher brought out his first book. After publishing a second book, Frost returned to America determined to win a reputation in his own country, which he gradually achieved, becoming one of the country’s best-loved poets. Unlike his contemporaries, Frost chose not to experiment with new verse forms but to employ traditional patterns, or as he said, he chose “the old-fashioned way to be new.” Despite the surface cheerfulness and descriptive accuracy of his poems, he often presents a dark, sober vision of life, and there is a decidedly thoughtful quality to his work.
In the poem above we see how, like Wordsworth, Frost takes an ordinary experience and transforms it into a meditative moment, a philosophical musing. Apple-picking slides gradually away from merely harvesting fruit to considering how life has been experienced fully but with some regrets and mistakes. The reference to winter coming on feels like the presence of mortalilty. The question about what kind of sleep to anticipate suggests untroubled oblivion or possibly some kind of new life just as the woodchuck reawakens to fresh life in the spring after his hibernation.