In the poem "After Apple-Picking", Robert Frost has cleverly disguised many symbols and allusions to enhance the meaning of the poem. One must understand the parallel to understand the central theme of the poem. The apple mentioned in the poem could be connected to the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden. It essentially is the beginning of everything earthly and heavenly, therefore repelling death. To understand the complete meaning of Frost's poem one needs to be aware that for something to be dead, it must have once had life.
Life and death are common themes in poetry, but this poem focuses on what is in between, life's missed experiences and the regret that the speaker is left with. Regret is defined as "a feeling of disappointment or distress about something that one wishes could be different" (www.dictionary.com). While there is no doubt that the speaker in this poem has had a very productive and worthwhile life, one gets the impression that there is still an empty feeling in his life, of which he can do nothing about. In lines 3-6, he reflectively states, "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".
Here, it is necessary to expand that idea the idea of the apples as a metaphor for life, and say that they also represent missed life experiences. As the speaker looks back on his life, he sees unfinished tasks, and thus he feels regret. It is important to note though, that he accepts the fact that he can do nothing about these unfinished tasks, and he is ready to move to a new and final stage in his life as he acknowledges that he "is done with apple-picking now" (6).
The reason for the reflection is evident when the speaker says, "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" (9-10). From this it seems as though the speaker has caught a glimpse of his reflection in the drinking trough and has noticed that the reflection was or gray with age. It appears as though the speaker does not merely see himself in the water's reflection though; he also visualizes past visions and memories from his life. Further on in the poem, the speaker says, "There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall" (30).
The speaker seems to be seeing all of his chances, or opportunities. The reverence with which he speaks of these opportunities, give the reader the sense that the speaker is now looking back on his life and suddenly realizes the importance of this lost fruit. The speaker then goes on to say that "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" (33-36). The bruises on the fruit represent the mistakes or misused chances, maybe even failure, but the fact that these bruised apples considered worthless and discarded seems to be an epiphany to the speaker. He is realizes that while these apples were bruised, cider still came from them.
The discarded apples act as metaphors for all of the mistakes that he has made in his life, and he now understands that they are in fact not worthless, as much knowledge can be gained from examining one's mistakes. The reason for the speaker's sudden surge of regret seems to be looming death, for he states in the very first line, "My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree toward heaven still" (1-2). This reference to heaven is the first evidence that the speaker thinks he is going to die. At this point in the poem the references to death or the end of life are rather peaceful, as exemplified by the statement. "But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night" (6-7). Though the words, "winter", "sleep", and "night" typically represent death, they do not necessarily invoke a violent or scary image of death. While this previous diction reflects a sort of peace in the speaker's words, yet the tone tends to change slightly as the poem nears its end. "One can see what will trouble this sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is" (37-38). This statement gives the reader the impression the speaker has come to a troubling realization. Again, the speaker says "and I keep hearing from the cellar bin the rumbling sound of load on load of apples coming in" (24-26)
The fact that this "rumbling" is coming from the "cellar", or even the fact that it is a rumbling sound, evoke a darker meaning in the poem. This is evident when he says, "My instep arch not only keeps the ache, it keeps the pressure of a ladder-round. I feel the ladder sway as the bows bend". It is clear that the ladder is pointed towards heaven, and can therefore be regarded as a path to heaven. At this point in the poem though, the speaker seems to think that this ladder to heaven may break, sending him to the earth or perhaps even to the "cellar" (a metaphor for Hell).
By the end of the poem, both the speaker and the reader have come to a general acceptance regarding the speaker's looming death. It therefore comes as a bit of a shock when the speaker says, "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". The metaphorical meaning of sleep in this poem has been previously established, however, a new definition surfaces as a result of this statement.
Frost has just written of two different types of sleepis it possible that he is talking about two different states of death? In searching for the significance of this statement, it is necessary to return to the apple and its representation of both life and death. The reader, as well as the speaker, is not sure if he is really dying or whether he has simply ceased feeling and experiencing life, thus causing the feelings of regret. It is interesting, though purely speculative, to note that in the year that Frost wrote this poem, he would be turning forty years old. One must wonder whether Frost was looking back on his own life thus far with some sort of regret.