The poem, ‘After Apple-Picking’, depicts the narrator describing an arduous day at work, picking apples, and how he has grown wearisome of this job. He has felt drowsy and whimsical since the morning, when he looked at apple trees through a sheet of ice which he lifted from the surface of a water trough. He feels himself begin to dream, yet even in his dreams he cannot escape the apples which surround him every day. He sees visions of the apples growing from blossoming trees, falling and piling up in a cellar. He now feels tired, feels sleep approaching, but wonders whether it is a normal, end-of-the-day sleep or if it is something more sinister.
‘After Apple Picking’ comes from a collection of poems titled ‘North of Boston’, which could give us some clue regarding the geographic setting of the place, ie New England. The poem through the narrator’s eyes does not give us a clear idea of the area that surrounding him, however, if is safe to assume that from the profession of apple picking itself, the narrator is on a farm or orchard of some sort. The poem also skips from moment to moment, leaving the reader with a warped sense of time and space, as the narrator jumps from moment to moment. Though this may appear to be confusing, we are able to glean from this that the farm this man is on is busy with industry, as he is constantly talking of picking apples, and filling barrels (line 3), and sorting apples that will be used for cider (line 35).
Superficially, this poem can be taken as one simply about apple picking. We can see that after a hard day working, the narrator is physically exhausted, however cannot mentally escape the act of picking apples, so ingrained is it in he. He describes how he can still feel the ache in his feet (line 21), how he still mourns the loss of ripe apples falling to the ground (line 23) and how they all end up in his cellar (line 26), presumably to be used to make cider (line 35).
However, if one were to delve beneath this veneer, it could be seen that the narrator’s everyday act of picking apples leads to a much more metaphorical discussion of seasonal changes and death. Though we cannot be certain when the poem takes place, we can deduce that it is set during the transition from autumn to winter. This is because apples are customarily harvested around autumn time, the grass is described as “hoary” (greyish-white) (line 12), the narrator physically takes a sheet of ice that froze over the surface of the water trough (line 10) and explicitly describes the atmosphere as one of an “essence of winter” (line 7).
Due to the varying rhymes and tenses of the poem, it is not clear when the narrator is dreaming or awake. One possibility is that the entirety of the poem takes place within a dream. The narrator is already asleep and is automatically reliving the day’s harvest as he dreams (line 8). This explanation clarifies the disjointed narrative — shifting from topic to topic as the narrator dreams — as well as the narrator’s assertion that he was “well upon my way to sleep” (line 14/15) before the sheet of ice fell from his hands.
Another explanation of this discordant poem is that the narrator is dying, and his rambling musings on apple picking are the fevered hallucinations of a man about to leave the world of the living. This idea is supported when reading the beginning of the poem, in which the narrator states that his ladder is pointing towards heaven (lines 1 and 2), as if he has already begun his ascension to another world and is thinking back on his life as a labourer in the orchards, picking apples. However, in the next line we find out that he has not finished filling the last barrel with apples, which could be a metaphor for how this dying man feels as if he has not accomplished everything he wanted, or perhaps needed to, in life, and so struggles to stay with the