12 September, 2009

Frost's "After Apple-Picking"

I really liked Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" when I first read it this morning; I usually like Frost, just because the tone of his poems resonate so strongly with me. But I wasn't quite sure how to understand it, and when you really like a poem, you generally want to know why. So just as an experiment, I adopted Helen Vendler's tactic from her chapter on "Exploring a Poem" and started following through the poem bit by bit to get a real sense of what's going on. It's quite an exhaustive process that she sets up. I only actually went through seven of the thirteen steps she outlines, partly because I address aspects of the later categories (language, tone, etc) in these paragraphs, and also partly because I think that by the time I got to seven I had come out with a really satisfactory reading, and the rest of the steps were easier, mechanical ones anyway. Plus, it took a lot of work even to get this far! (And I do have real work to do.) I definitely recommend the method. I was quite skeptical of how well it would work on my first reading of Vendler, thinking I would need to be much more well-versed in poetics than I am to make use of her directives, but it didn't turn out so badly. It's not a perfectly polished reading, but it's nice to have a general directionality in a reading nonetheless.

The Poem:

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.
For all
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.

1. Meaning:

The speaker is just finishing up picking apples. He perhaps hasn’t gotten every one of them, but he is tired and ready to finish by now. His vision has been rather strange ever since he looked through a pane of ice from the water trough (presumably in the morning, and he says that at that point his sleep was already coming on. He knows what his dreams will be like. He can still feel the pressure of the ladder on the soles of his feet. Now he hears still the apples tumbling into storage bins and announces that he’s already tired of the harvest he had so earnestly desired. It’s been too painstaking to carefully pick each apple, and each one that fell had to go to the cider pile, as though it were worthless. He says he knows what will “trouble” his sleep and wonders whether he will sleep like the woodchuck, waking in the spring, or whether he’ll just sleep an ordinary human sleep.

2. Antecedent Scenario:

The speaker has been apple picking, and has been at it for a long time, hoping for a huge harvest.

3. Division into Structural Parts:

There are two halves of the poem, and each opens with a description of some aspect of the experience of apple-picking and ends with a speculation about what his sleep will be like. There are rhymes, but these don’t seem to form a definite pattern, so I can’t see a way to break it up based on those. There also is the structural division of the sentences: 9 in the first half and 7 in the second.

4. The Climax:

I’m not sure, but there seems to be a climax in each of the two parts. In the first there’s the moment where he lets the ice fall and break, and unexpectedly abrupt, one might almost say violent, act in the midst of what had seemed a reflective and calm poem. Moreover you here get the very strange information that he was already dozing off to sleep before it fell – there is a temporal uncertainty introduced into the poem here that was not evident before. How could he be “well /upon my way to sleep before it fell” – a disjoint between the act of letting it fall and the (usually slow) process of falling asleep? And why would he be falling asleep in the morning? Also the glass is the very thing that has made strange his sight; his breaking it almost seems an attempt to break the spell that has been cast on him, yet an unsuccessful one as he “cannot rub the strangeness from [his] sight” and the vision gives him an impression of what his dreams will be like.
The second climax comes, I think, at the point when he announces that he is “overtired/of the great harvest I myself desired” . This also is a piece of information that we had not necessarily expected. True, he had already announced that he is “done with apple-picking now”, but the realization that he has been driven not so much by necessity, as we might expect for a New England farmer harvesting his crops, as by his own desire. Or perhaps we can conflate the need and the desire, yet the latter aspect is the one he chooses here to emphasize. This gives a new tone to the succeeding lines, and greatly influences subsequent readings of the whole. Why did he desire such a great harvest of “load on load of apples”? The following lines take this revelation and explain it: he had to handle “ten thousand thousand fruit” and this is the reason for his exhaustion; he returns to the theme of sleep and dreams, and we realize in context of the climax, that there is another sort of dream at play in the poem than just the dreams of sleep: also present is the unexplained and mysteriously wearying dream of attaining a superabundant harvest.

5. The Other Parts:

Each half of the poem begins in the present tense, switches to the past tense in the middle to describe an actual experience, and then returns to present tense. In each case, the first present tense part describes a current situation: the apple-orchard after he has left it, plus his readiness to be finished, and his continued sensory impression from the hours of apple-picking plus his sense of having had too much of it. The first past tense segment is introduced by a present tense sentence explaining that there’s something else strange going on here and attributes it to an action performed in the morning – the looking “through the looking glass” which commenced the confusion of temporal linearity which will proceed throughout the poem. The past tense segment of the second half recounts the exhausting experience of handling tens of thousands of apples and the concurrent disappointment that would be felt whenever his painstaking care would fail, and one would drop to the ground, fit now only for cider (that’s a bad thing?). And in each return to the present tense for each ending of a half, the speaker has moved to speculation about the quality and content of his dreams (and we see also, then, that though these two parts remain in the present tense literally, there is a sense in which they point to the future, raising the question of whether (first half) the sensory impressions of the experience will persist in his dreams, and whether (second half) the his sleep might not be the unconscious sleep of the woodchuck or “just some human sleep”.

6. Find the Skeleton:

The emotional curve of the poem progresses from a calm almost lullaby-like opening –he is ready to be finished with what he has finished well—to a realization of the strangeness of his morning vision, to a sense of less-than peaceful exhaustion, to a perturbed pondering of just what the quality of his sleep will be. One realizes in retrospect that perhaps he does have something to worry about: yes, he seemed satisfied at the opening of the poem with a job well done…but was it quite well-done? He mentions the “Apples I didn't pick upon some bough”, and the memory of the abandoned ladder still pointing heavenwards seems more discomfiting in the context of his later dissatisfaction with the product of his work. The spell cast upon him by the ice-plate’s vision, a spell which sends him into a dream-like reverie about the content of his dreams to come, seems as though it could have been informing him of something that was not quite right in his work, revealing what had been left unfinished yet possibly should have been completed. The trance-like state he enters causes him to see once more the apples still ripe upon the branches, waiting to be picked, and yet to re-experience the ache of the work and the monotony of barrel after barrel being stored in the cellar. There were “ten thousand thousand” fruit to not just pick but to “cherish”. Yet he has not picked and cherished all of these: some he picked and dropped (yet at least something can still be made of these), and some he simply left. The constant demand for attention that such a project made exhausted him, but despite this excuse he is left worrying that perhaps his dreams in sleep will be not quite what he might otherwise have expected. I can’t help recalling Hamlet here:
“To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.”

7. Games the Poet Plays with the Skeleton:

So up to now I’ve been developing this picture of the poem being an arc of realization on the speaker’s part that what he had thought he had done well was perhaps not so conscientiously performed and that he may not be able to rest in peace. But there are some small points here which leave us a lot of room to sophisticate the thesis, so to speak. For one thing, what’s going on with the woodchuck imagery at the end? There are (no surprise) multiple ways of interpreting that juxtaposition of the woodchuck’s sleep and human sleep. My default at the end of step 5 was to gloss it as a contrast between the unconscious slumber of an animal and the dream-filled sleep of humans (not that animals don’t dream; they just don’t experience them in the way we do) which can preserve the sensory impressions of the waking hours beyond the moment of falling asleep. But the dismissive tone of “just some human sleep” demands an explanation. I suspect that “just” is there to do a little more than to simply express the poet’s familiarity with human sleep as compared to that of an animal, although I’m sure that’s some minor part of it (or at least it works as a minor part of it). If we recall that the woodchuck is not just any old animal but specifically one which hibernates throughout the winter and is “resurrected” in the spring, a whole new dimension is added to this imagery. The poet is placing before him, perhaps, the alternative of dream-filled sleep in which:
“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.”--
not the most pleasant of dreams, but rather a repetition of all the exhausting sensory experience that the speaker’s ambition for a great harvest caused him to subject himself to, but that he failed to resolve by truly finishing his grand project. Or there is the sleep of the woodchuck which promises a return to life at a time of new spring; reinvigoration and renewal.

Of course, we also have the whole Eden imagery running through the poem. I know very little about Frost or his poetry as a whole, but one thing I am familiar with is his constant recurrence to the theme of Eden (“Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a prime example of this). And what else can anyone who has even the barest minimum of a foundation in Western thought call to mind when we get a juxtaposition of images of apple-picking, transgression, doubt, and possible death? It’s slightly more confusing imagery than one might imagine at first. Why is his transgression apparently failing to pick the apples? Isn’t that a bit backwards? I’m not sure how much of a theologian Frost was, but coming at the poem from an orthodox Catholic perspective (I’m not claiming he was that—I have no idea) I would see his need to pick the apples as a sort of duty to work in a fallen world. If it weren’t for that original apple (or fruit, actually, because we all know Genesis never calls it an apple), the aches and pains of his work would not be there. In an Edenic state, his work would be easily completed with all the necessary care, and no fruit of his labor would be lost: he could easily achieve the “great harvest I myself desired”. But as things stand, it’s all too easy to drop the fruit, to not “cherish” it carefully enough. Now something good (cider) can come even from those failures, though it’s going to require even more work. The only apples that are irretrievably lost are those never retrieved. It is better to work and fail (because isn’t that inevitable, given the frailty of the picker and how quickly he tires? At least something can be salvaged from this) than to fail to work.

Of course, there’s not only religious (or perhaps not so much explicitly religious as Christian metaphysical) imagery entering into this poem. The pane of ice through which the speaker perceives his failure brings to mind another interpretation of the poem—not a contradictory one, but a complementary one. For what is an artist doing but looking “through a glass darkly” and using his imperfect powers of perception to bring about a clearer perception of reality? Though his sight may be obscured by the strangeness of the vision and by its imperfection, there is a reality beyond it that his vision enables him to strive towards an ever-clearer view of. The speaker lets the glass soon fall to the ground and break, but whether he was hoping to avoid this task as well (or perhaps the unpicked apples have been all along a metaphor for a lack of attention to such things) and to slip back into the rest he longs for, the moment of sight has struck his consciousness so that he can no longer see things the same way, but must from this point onwards be acutely conscious of the nature of his failure and teleologically oriented to ponder the nature of the broader truth behind and awaiting all that has happened.

1 comment:

Mum said...

When I read this poem I immediately said, "Yes." I think I have been where he was many times a I gathered fruits and veggies to can or store. The feeling of never having enough despite huge quantities. A sense of hoarding, perhaps even the sin of greed deep in my fallen nature to aquire more and more just in case. Watching as the more choice fruits fall, only to become bruised. Dreaming about more and more. Yes, I have been in his shoes,and sometimes I don't like it.