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POTW: Robert Frost and the Importance of Metaphor


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. 5
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 10
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, 15
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. 20
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 25
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, 30
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 35
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 40
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.


“After Apple Picking” is quintessential Robert Frost. It’s richly metaphorical and wonderfully creative, yet deeply formal too.

And it’s one my favorite poems to teach.

On the surface the whole thing is fairly straight forward. There’s a man, probably an old man, who, in the midst of an autumnal apple harvest, grows tired of the work and wishes simply to sleep. Yet even as he rests he feels the familiar pressure of the ladder on the soles of his feet and he hears the sounds of “load on load of apples” being dumped into the cellar. Once upon a time he’d hoped for such a harvest, but now that’s it here….

Of course, what with the clever rhyming of “sleep” (a word that appears six times in the poem) and “heap” and the ladder ends pointed toward heaven and the poem’s generally exhausted tone, it would be easy to read “After Apple Pickin”g as a sort of ominous pre-curser to some sort of death, as most readers do. Or one could read it as an eulogy to Edenic innocence, as some insistent on doing; or, should you so desire, you can read about Frost a bit and come to the conclusion that this is a poem about the loss of Western Civilization, as still others do. Oh, and then there’s the far more likely interpretation that “After Apple Picking” is actually about the challenge of writing poetry.

Read it a few more times, out loud if possible, and decide for yourself– or, better yet, discuss it in the comment section below.

But for this particular post I’m more interested in the way that this poem can help us cultivate poetic thought.

For Frost, metaphor was everything. It is the heart of poetry, he believed; but, more than, it’s heart of all thinking. Not only did metaphor allow his poetry “to talk”, as he wished it to, but metaphor also was central to his dualistic aesthetic philosophy. He believed that “the height of poetry, the height of all thinking, the height of all poetic thinking,” was in “that attempt to say matter in terms of spirit and spirt in terms of matter.” He believed that is is the job of the artist to provide “gathering metaphors” by which the universe can be understood.

Indeed, as humans, he argued, we experience reality through our senses, but that through poetic education we can “leap from sight to insight, from sense to essence, from an awareness of the physical to awareness of the metaphysical”, as Frost biographer (and friend) Peter J. Stanlis put it in his book Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher. Thus as we experience the gathering metaphors found in quality poetry our understanding of reality is deepened and our ability to interact with it – and one another – is improved. This is why Frost was profoundly disturbed by, and vocally in opposition to, the values of early 20th century Progressive education. He vehemently disagreed with John Dewey and Thomas Henry Huxley, who viewed scientific knowledge as evidence of the educated person, instead siding with the likes of John Henry Cardinal Newman and Matthew Arnold, strong advocates of the Liberal Arts who considered the study of Latin to be especially important.

But as Stanlis notes, Frost believed that metaphor is more than pictures that tie the concrete and the abstract together, more even than comparison or analogy. He believed that poetic forms themselves were metaphorical. That the nature of the sonnet, for example, was inherently metaphorical. He believed that meter, rhythm, tone, and rhyme are all fundamentally metaphorical by nature.

And nowhere is this more clear than in “After Apple Picking”.

Consider Frost’s purposeful approach to meter, for example. It’s mostly iambic and usually pentameter (except in lines too short for it), which proves useful in two ways. One the one hand, iambic pentameter is one of the most familiar metrical approaches, thus allowing Frost to draw the reader in. We quickly become comfortable with the rhythms of the poem, complacent even. This, of course, makes Frost’s abrupt adjustments to the meter (as in “for all”) much more jarring, just as a loud noise (such as, say, a baby’s cry) is jarring when finally you’ve drifted off to sleep.

And, yet, the iambic form allows the poem to mimic the wandering thoughts of the apple picker as he drifts to sleep. There’s a sort of wandering pace to it, that mimics the way one might jump from thought to thought as sleep approaches, or as one might jump, when deep in sleep, from dream to dream.

Thus Frost ties our sensory apprehension of the poem to the fundamental essence of the story he is telling. He gathers metaphors common to all men and creates deeper meaning through their coalescence. And, all the while, our poetic knowledge is improved. This is what T.S. Eliot is talking about when he refers to the “objective correlative”, a term all students of literature should know.

This is just one such example available in this poem, but it’s the kind of revelation that makes it such great fun to teach. For what it’s worth, I recommend you not reveal this to your students right away. Guide them towards this knowledge, certainly, but slowly and by asking questions. That way, when they see it themselves the revelation will be that much more wondrous. It’ll be one of those brilliant lightbulb moments we teachers live for.

As teachers, it’s our job to help our students identfiy such metaphors. In fact, I always try to help them see the matephors before I ever talk about rhyme, rhythm, meter, and all the other formal aspects of a poem. Those elements are only meaningful inasmuch as they play a metaphorical part within the tapestry of the poem.

Speaking of metaphors…

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