labor

George Montiero: On "After Apple-Picking"

Several of Frost's finest poems through the years reflected his fascination with the myth of Adam and Eve and his preoccupation with the human consequences of their fall: what he called, in "Kitty Hawk," "Our instinctive venture / Into what they call / The material / When we took that fall / From the apple tree."

[. . . .]

In "After Apple- Picking" the matter is handled a bit differently. There the poet-farmer describes his concern regarding the "coming on" of sleep which will end his long day's labor. For he knows that troubled sleep and repetitive dreams, resulting directly from the daytime activity which has brought him to the harvest and the "wealth" he covets, are his meed. The remembered sensations of apple picking—the "bodily memories of the experience (what we farmers used to call kinesthetic images)"—will prevail in his sleep and will disturb his rest. In memory, but seemingly even stronger than memory, there will nag the "scent" of apples, the "sight" through the skimmed morning ice, the "ache" and "pressure" on the instep arch, the "hearing" of the "rumbling" from the cellar bin. "If you gather apples in the sunshine . . . and shut your eyes," wrote Emerson, "you shall still see apples hanging in the bright light." In sum, Frost knows not whether that sleep will be like the animal hibernation (the "long sleep") of the woodchuck or, as the poet puts it ironically, "just some human sleep."

The country details of "After Apple-Picking" only partly mask the poet's concern with the mythic consequences of the Fall. If Eve's curse, after she tasted of the fruit from the forbidden tree, was that she would "bring forth children," Adam's curse, after joining Eve in the risk, was that he would live henceforth by the "sweat" of his "face"—that is, he would sustain his life by his own labor. The irony beyond this curse is Frost's subject. Adam's curse was to labor, but another way of putting it is that Adam and his descendants were doomed to live within, and at the mercy of, the senses. Significantly, Frost defines the curse still further: man will not cease to labor even in rest.

In the very desire to profit from his long hours of work, the poet has made himself vulnerable, in a wry sense, to the dictum that "the sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep" (Ecclesiastes 5:12). The rub is that the poet is both laborer and "rich" man. He has the "great harvest" he desired; but he has labored long and faithfully in bringing about that harvest—certainly too long and possibly too faithfully to enable him to reap the reward of peaceful, untroubled rest that is promised to the diligent laborer.

The poem can be seen as an elaboration of Genesis: Adam's curse was not merely that he was doomed to live by the " sweat" of his "face" but also that the curse to labor would follow him into his rest and his dreams. Such, inevitably, is the way after apple picking—and such is the paradox of Adam's curse, even as it extends to the poet-farmer of New England.

But Thoreau had viewed man's curse in another way. "It is not necessary," he wrote in Walden, "that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do." Indeed, as he had written earlier in Walden, the problem was that "men labor under a mistake. . . . [for] the better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate" commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal." Behind Frost's poem, however, is the recognition of all that Thoreau says about man's misguided labors and bootless cupidity and, of course, in the person of the apple picker a tacit disregard of these injunctions from an "old book" and the new book that is Walden. Indeed, Frost's apple picker, "overtired / Of the great harvest" he has himself desired, has made the Thoreauvian mistake of being "so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. . . . the laboring man . . . has no time to be anything but a machine. . . . The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling." Something like Thoreau's admonitions, then, lies behind the uneasiness of Frost's apple picker's sleep ("One can see what will trouble / This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is").

 

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.

Katherine Kearns: On "Mending Wall"

It is arguable that the self-righteous speaker of "Mending Wall" is himself obsessively committed to wall building, far more intractably and instinctively committed than his cliché-bound neighbor. While the speaker of "Mending Wall" justifiably castigates his unthinking neighbor and is himself far more aware of the powers of language for good and for ill, he is nonetheless caught up, ironically perhaps, in the same actual task, wall building, which will have the same results and look no different from his neighbor's contribution despite the narrative he brings to it. There are several possibilities for irony here, depending on the level of Frost's self-awareness. Wall imagery pervades his poetry, as a conscious poetic image and as a psychosexual marker of control and limitation. That the speaker is the one who calls the neighbor to mend the wall is vitally important, then, but it is not clear that Frost meant for the speaker to be ironically perceived as a hypocrite. The simple explanation, that the speaker acts out of a sense of inevitability, knowing his neighbor's habits, seems hardly enough given the contextual symbolism of the wall in Frost's poetry; the psychological explanation attendant upon this version might suggest that Frost's conscious intent was subverted by his own unconscious need for walls. So while Frost might not mean the speaker to be self-parodic, the reader might judge that there is an ironic discrepancy between what is said and what is meant, both by the speaker and by the poet. On a deeper level even than this is the possibility that Frost was aware of, had taken account of and justified, his own need for barriers. One does, after all, need something against which to push. In this case, the poem might be completely unironic, for while both men are engaged in the same task, each brings a different narrative to it, the one limited to a thoughtless clichJ , the other enriched philosophically. It could be that Frost is illustrating what it means to move from delight to wisdom: the road less traveled may not look any different, but it is made different by the inner progress of the traveler. The one wall becomes, in this reading, two walls, the speaker's wall a philosophically differentiated structure, the neighbor's wall a mere landmark of past cliches.

From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright Ó 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Hayden Carruth: On "Two Tramps in Mudtime"

"Two Tramps in Mud Time" opens with the poet as wood-splitter in the thawing time of late winter, suffering the interruption of two unemployed loggers; this is good localized description, the kind Frost was master of. But then he appears not to know what to do with his opening. The poem wanders into further unnecessary description: the April day, the bluebird, the snow and water; and then it ends in four stanzas of virtually straight editorial matter. The two tramps and the mud-time are left utterly stranded. When one thinks how Frost would have used these figures at the time when he was writing his earlier dramatic and narrative poems, one can see clearly, I believe, how he had deserted his own imagination and how he tried to make up the deficiency through conscious manipulation and force

From "Robert Frost" in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Spring-Summer, 1975.