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Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” first appeared in his second poetry collection, North of Boston, published in 1914. The 42-line poem, though not written in strict form, loosely relies on iambic pentameter. Considered “too traditional” for the modernist poets, Frost’s poetry characteristically depicts pastoral New England life, typically in autumn. Poet and literary critic Randall Jarrell considered Frost—a contemporary of poets Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot—the greatest American poet of his time.
As they fall asleep, the narrator of “After Apple-Picking” recalls a day of just that—apple picking. They have spent their day climbing ladders. As they drift to sleep, images from the orchard, such as frost on the grass and red apples hanging in the trees, permeate their thoughts. The narrator reflects on the day’s exhaustion and acknowledges that not all the apples could be picked. They continue drifting into sleep, wondering if their sleep will be “just some human sleep” (Line 42) or a “long sleep” (Line 41). Scholars focus on the poem’s themes of sleep and dreaming, as well as what the poem’s ending implies about death. “After Apple-Picking” explores these themes by utilizing common symbols like the apple, as well as the narrator’s place in nature, thereby solidifying Frost’s reputation for asking fundamental questions about existence and the loneliness of the individual.
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Born in San Francisco, Robert Frost (1874-1963) was the son of journalist William Prescott Frost, Jr. and Isabelle Moodie. Despite his later works’ focus on rural life, Frost grew up in the city. He attended Dartmouth College for two months, and returned home a brief time later to become a teacher. Along with teaching, he worked at odd jobs such as delivering newspapers and maintaining carbon arc lamps in a factory.
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Frost sold his first poem, titled “My Butterfly. An Elegy” in 1894. In 1895, he married Elinor Miriam White; the couple eventually lived on the farm Frost’s grandfather purchased for them prior to his death. From 1897-99, Frost attended Harvard University, but left due to illness. For nine years, Frost unsuccessfully worked the farm on which he and Elinor lived, leading Frost to take a teaching position at Pinkerton Academy (1906-11) and later at the New Hampshire Normal School. In 1912, Frost sailed with his family to Great Britain and in 1913, he published his first full collection of poems, A Boy’s Will. In England, he met poets Ezra Pound, T.E. Hulme, and Edward Thomas. In 1915, Frost returned to America, bought a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, and launched his writing career.
In 1924, for the book New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes, Frost won the first of four Pulitzer Prizes. In 1931, he won the Pulitzer for Collected Poems; in 1937, he won for a third time for A Further Range; and in 1943, he won for the fourth time for A Witness Tree. From 1921 to 1962, Frost taught every summer and fall at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. In 1960, Frost received the Congressional Gold Medal; at age 86, he read at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, becoming the first inaugural poet. Frost accompanied Interior Secretary Stewart Udall to the Soviet Union to meet with Nikita Khrushchev and lobby for peaceful negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In 1963, Frost passed away due to complications from prostate surgery.
Frost, Robert. “After Apple-Picking.” 1914. Poetry Foundation,
The poem opens with the speaker’s honest acknowledgement: They left their picking ladder standing in a tree and a few apple barrels remain unfilled. Unpicked apples still hang in the trees. The speaker struggles to relax and calm their mind. As the speaker wills sleep to come, they relive the day’s events, such as looking through a window and seeing frost covering the ground.
As the speaker continues to struggle to fall asleep, images of apples “appear and disappear” (Line 18). The speaker resolves they have participated too much in apple-picking because their mind will not clear. They recall the physical toll picking and climbing ladders task has taken on their body. The speaker’s exhaustion finally takes over. Before the exhaustion pulls the speaker into sleep, they think about the apples, no matter their condition, left to make cider. Before succumbing to slumber, the speaker wonders what type of sleep they will have—a night’s sleep, or more philosophically, the “long sleep” (Line 41), which is a common euphemism for death.
By Robert Frost