Robert Frost's poem, After Apple-Picking, describes the personal reflections of an elderly man who lives on an apple orchard. This old man has lived a good life, and now must contemplate its quality and meaning. By performing an honest assessment of his past, the old man is better able to accept his inevitable future.
The first six lines of this poem develop the situation in which the speaker has found himself. He has led a long and successful life and is still on track for going to heaven upon his death. Apples are used as a metaphor for his wealth, not just monetary wealth, but rather everything that he has accumulated during his life. "And there's a barrel that I didn't fill" implies there are a few more things that he would have liked to have had accomplished in his lifetime. The speaker follows this recognition of his own mortality by adding, "But I am done with apple picking now." This statement is meant to suggest that his life is slowly coming to an end.
"Winter sleep" is the next image that is presented. The speaker is describing two concepts with this line; the deep hibernation that certain animals will fall into during the winter, as well as his own upcoming death. Traces of this "winter sleep" are supposedly being detected during the night that is depicted in this poem. He thinks about his life's accomplishments as he is going to sleep.
Lines nine through seventeen describe both the speaker's transition from consciousness into deep sleep, as well as the onset of winter. He casually thinks about something that occurred earlier in the day that amused him. That morning he finds a layer of ice, "pane of glass", in his animal's "drinking trough." As he picks it up and looks through it, he notices the whitish grey, "hoary", frost that has accumulated on the surrounding grass. The speaker recognizes that the decrease in last night's temperature is a sign that winter is on its way.
By the time he has made this realization, the sun is already out and warm enough to start melting the ice. After acknowledging the oncoming seasonal change, the speaker drops the piece of ice, and it breaks apart on the ground. At about the same time the speaker recalls the ice falling towards the ground, he manages to fall asleep.
Once the speaker falls asleep, he describes a dream that he is having about apples. He thinks about what the apples look like, the enormous amount that he has picked over the years, and how he has taken many of these apples for granted. These apples, as defined earlier, are a metaphor for his wealth. More specifically, they are the fruits of his labor. While dreaming of apples, the speaker is actually reflecting upon all of the positive experiences that have happened to him.
He briefly recalls what the apples looked like, and then describes how he had picked those apples. Throughout the time he is picking apples, the speaker is standing on a ladder. This ladder also appears in the first line of the poem, and could be interpreted as his lifelong effort towards making good ethical and moral decisions. At times it can be difficult to maintain balance on a ladder, but it leads upwards towards the heavens. He states, "I feel
the ladder sway," meaning that he's faced temptation a few times, but he never describes having fallen off of the ladder. It's apparent that during the speaker's youth, he had dreamt of success. He describes "load on load of apples coming in," which implies that his dreams have become a reality. Then, in lines twenty-seven through twenty-nine, the speaker relays how he eventually begins feeling burnt out towards his own success. He has become "overtired of the great harvest" that he had previously desired. The speaker eventually starts to feel complacent towards his success. He takes his wealth for granted. Images of perfectly good apples being tossed into "the cider-apple heap," convey how he becomes wasteful.
There are most likely many great opportunities that he has missed through the years because he didn't feel like exerting any extra effort. Now, he wonders where those paths might have led him, and what other great experiences he might have had. These regrets "will trouble this sleep" of his, as he contemplates what he might have missed out on. Now that he has reflected upon the contents of his life, the speaker starts contemplating his death. He likens death to hibernation. The speaker considers how the local wildlife have already started hibernating, and maybe he will follow their lead. He wonders if he will die in his sleep tonight, or if he will have "just some human sleep."
Robert Frost uses an apple orchard to describe our own individualized little worlds. Through the contemplations of its speaker, it teaches us just how quickly life can pass us by, and how we need to make the most of it. After Apple-Picking certainly conveys this message quite well.
Frost, Robert. "After Apple-Picking." The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed.
Michael Meyer. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford / St. Martins. 2002. 1008.