Robert Frost never finished college.  He attended both Dartmouth and Harvard but never graduated, instead settling down on a farm in New Hampshire with his young family.  He set aside time to write early in the mornings and at that farm completed many of the works that would later make him famous.  Yet the man who wrote perhaps the most distinctively American poems of the 20th century, including those roads that diverged in a yellow wood, couldn’t get published.  He would eventually go on to receive four Pulitzer prizes and over 40 honorary degrees, but the only poet most Americans can quote by heart didn’t get a book of his poetry published until the age of 38, and then only in England.

Oh we read a poem by Robert Frost / after apple picking / after apple picking

As I was about to leave for Long Island last fall to pick apples with Christine Mild, another friend of mine asked me if I had read the poem by Robert Frost on that very subject.  I had not.  I quickly found it online, printed it, and put it in my pocket.  I thought it might be fun to read after we had, in fact, gone apple picking.  The poem begins with a simple pastoral description of harvesting fruit, but quickly evolves into a rueful mediation about choices we make in life.  If you’ve read my earlier post about the day Christine and I shared at the orchard in Long Island, you’ll realize this was appropriate.  “After Apple Picking,” the portrait I’ve written of Christine, shares both its title and theme with the Frost poem we read that afternoon as we returned empty handed from the orchard.  Somehow it comforts me to know that a man who changed the course of American poetry struggled just the same as I sometimes do.  Below is the text of his original poem.

(Left: James Chapin portrait of a young Robert Frost, Right: his 1974 USPS stamp)

“After Apple Picking” by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still,

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.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

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.

It melted, and I let it fall and break.

But I was well

Upon my way to sleep before it fell,

And I could tell

What form my dreaming was about to take.

Magnified apples appear and disappear,

Stem end and blossom end,

And every fleck of russet showing clear.

My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin

The rumbling sound

Of load on load of apples coming in.

For I have had too much

Of apple-picking: I am overtired

Of the great harvest I myself desired.

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

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.

One can see what will trouble

This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

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.

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