Robert Frost, “After Apple Picking”
Briefly, Frost uses apple picking as a metaphor for life’s work. That the narrator’s ladder
is pointing “Toward heaven” instead of “toward the heavens” or “toward the skies” is the
early suggestion of the poem’s symbolic nature.
Realizing he hasn’t totally completed his work (at least one empty barrel and two or three
apples left hanging), the narrator insists he is “done with apple-picking now.” With the
“scent of apples” (sensory memories of his work/life) in the air, he senses “Essence of
winter sleep,” literal winter with an end to the harvesting and/or death.
The literal approach of winter is signaled by the ice on the trough. His vision probably
already blurred by age is further blurred by the ice of approaching winter and by his
He realizes his dreaming will be of apples/work with “every fleck of russet”
(imperfection) all too obvious. His body retains the aches of his work and he still hears
the echos of the apples rolling into the bin in his cellar.
Finally he admits that he’s “had too much of apple-picking” despite wanting a “great
harvest.” World weary, filled with weltschmertz, he remembers what a perfectionist he
was (ll 32-36).
Frost subtly prods us to think symbolically when the narrator says he realizes “what will
trouble/This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.” If it “only” sleep, there’d be no need for
“whatever sleep it is.”
If the woodchuck were still around, the speaker concludes, he could tell “whether it’s like
his/Long sleep…Or just some human sleep.” The woodchuck’s hibernation symbolically
suggests resurrection; while “just [merely] human sleep” would be “just” sleep or death.
So finally, the narrator is not merely remember his life’s work but well aware of his
mortality, he is wondering about what’s next.
In addition to the symbols discussed, the poem probably alludes to the Garden of Eden
where mankind sentenced itself to a life of labor by picking the first apple.
Question du jour: why, in the first line, a two-pointed ladder? Everybody knows ladders
have two “points.” Frost didn’t need to tell us that, unless he meant something else by it.
Just as he didn’t need to repeat the last line of “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy
Evening” unless there was more than one kind of “miles” he had to go before he slept.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay”
Some of you remember this poem from S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders or the film made
from her novel.
As a native speaker, you have no trouble with this sentence, “A blackberry is red when
it’s green.” You understand that one of those color words isn’t a color word but is a
metaphor. Green in this case, meaning “not ripe.”
Frost uses the same sort of attention getting paradox in the first line. Obviously “gold”
is a metaphor meaning valuable or precious.
Because this is such a short poem both in length (8 lines) and in syllable count (6
syllables for each line) and has such a “normal” simple meter (producing a slightly
irregular iambic [unaccented, accented or - / ] trimeter [3 iambic feet]), Frost uses heavy
alliteration (first in line 2, then in line 7) as “speed bumps” to slow us down so we don’t
race through the poem.
We’ve had a rhododendron for maybe 15 years and so far I think it’s bloomed maybe
three times. Every spring we check it out, examine it as it begins to “come out.” Every
spring we decide, “That’s a flower; it’s going to bloom.” The next day we’re once again
disappointed as “leaf subsides to leaf.”
Suddenly Frost signals that we’re not just talking about flowers (just as Dickinson did in
“Suddenly With No Surprise”; was that really 6 or 7 weeks ago? Time flies when you’re
…..well, forget that)
With “So Eden sank to grief,” Frost moves from flowers to mankind. And with the
paradoxical “So dawn goes down to day” (we all know dawn rises), Frost prepares us
for the statement of theme, the title: Nothing gold (precious, beautiful) can stay (last).
Not even God’s perfect creation, Eden.
Obviously not optimistic, is the poem pessimistic or merely “that’s the way it is”?
Immediately Frost personifies the buzz-saw (“chair saw, we’d call it today) as it snarls,
rattles, makes dust, and drops “stove-length sticks of wood.” The setting is apparently
those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
Yet, this apparently idyllic description has a dark side first readers may not have noticed.
While the saw has been personified, that personification was limited to actions the saw
actually performed: making noise, producing dust, and cutting pieces of wood.
The visual imagery of the quoted lines (4-6) does not fit in that pattern and logically
could only be ascribed to a yet unnamed human. When we realize that the human is a
boy “manning” the saw, we realize that he is not paying full attention to what he is doing.
And not paying full attention when working with power tools is a mistake, whether in
1916 when Frost wrote the poem or today.
As the saw continues to “snarl” and “wrattle,” Frost repeats the verbs suggesting the
(boring) repetition of the work (7). When he says “nothing happened,” we probably
understand that he implies the word “yet.” Once again Frost says something (“nothing
happened”) that isn’t necessary in and of itself, unless it mean more than it means, unless
it implies that something is about to happen).
And so it is. The Sister announces “Supper” to “them,” again personifying the saw, and
“as if to prove saws knew what supper meant,” it “Leaped out at the boy’s hand….”
Is the boy’s hand literally cut off (Don’t insist as a student a few years ago that the boy’s
hand was decapitated; using the Latin root, caput, that verb means “having been
beheaded”) or merely so badly mauled that its loss is inevitable? Despite the boy’s plea
to his sister not to let the doctor cut the hand off, the question is irrelevant; one way or
another, the hand is gone. And the boy sees no way he can live a meaningful life on a
farm with one arm and, basically, sees “all spoiled,” and gives up and dies.
That his injury was not severe enough to be fatal is shown by the surprise shown by “the
watcher[s] at his pulse….”
The quotation marks in the title (and the footnote to the title) indicate the presence of an
quotation, an allusion we need to understand.. The allusion is to a familiar line in
Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Out, out, brief candle,” a metaphor for the brevity of life. And
indeed this boy’s life has been too brief.
Frost concludes that because the watchers “Were not the one dead, [they] turned to their
Frost presents us with the eight-ounce glass with four ounces of water. Is it half full or
half empty”? Is the final line and a half of the poem “positive,” “negative,” or another
case of “that’s the way it is.” Note that however we read the line initally, Frost does not
give us an adverb which would have clarified.
Consider the differences between “They reluctantly returned to their affairs,” “They
happily returned,” or “They finally returned….”
Despite the terribleness of a death, the living must finally return to life.
The allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth is deeper even than the “brief candle” reference.
Informed of his wife’s death, Macbeth , faced with an attack on his castle, replies, “She
should have died hereafter,” at another time when he had time to mourn her. Likewise,
the boy “should have died hereafter”
Once again, is the poem negative or simply “that’s the way it is?”