There is no question here of tones playing against a traditional form; rather, an original rhythmic form grows out of the dramatic setting and the initial commitment in tone. Pre-sleep and sleepy reminiscence of the day condition all that is said, and the speaker's first words show what form his dreamy talk will take. His 'ladder's sticking through a tree'—which is accurate and earthy—but 'through a tree / Toward heaven.' As the apple-picker drowses off, narrative of fact about the ice skimmed from the trough gets mixed with dream, and the time references of the tenses become a bit confused:
But I was well Upon my way to sleep before it fell, And I could tell What form my dreaming was about to take.
'Could tell' and 'was about to take' seem to refer both to the morning and to the present state of 'drowsing off.'
Everything said throughout the poem comes to the reader through sentences filled with incantatory repetitions and, rhymes and in waves of sound linked by likeness of pattern. From the opening lines, apparently matter-of-fact talk falls into curious chain-like sentences, rich in end-rhymes and, echoes of many sorts. But although the voice seems to be lapsing into the rhyming fits of insomnia, the fits shape themselves into distinct and subtly varied patterns. Each phase of reminiscence or reflection forms a unit of syntax, all except two without a final stop within the unit; and each unit becomes in effect a stanza marked off by one or two rhyming 'seals.' The last word either introduces a new rhyme that will be picked up in the next stanza:
. . . off. 2 . . . break. 3 . . . it is. 9
or else it completes a rhyme used earlier and with one exception not used again:
. . . now. 1
. . . take. 4
. . . clear. 5
. . . in. 6
. . . desired. 7
. . . worth. 8
. . . sleep. 10
The rhymes of the first type link stanza to stanza. Those of the second type increase the sense of monotonous sameness within each phase, as memories of waking fact and their sleepy distortions become impossible to tell apart. Since the word 'sleep' (10) has already occurred five times, it completes the rhyme and the poem with a special finality of sound and meaning.
The meaning implied by the self-hypnosis and dreamy confusion of rhythm is finely suggested in the image of 'the world of hoary grass,' the blurred seeing of morning that anticipates the night vision. This blurring of experience focuses in the central metaphor of the poem, 'essence of winter sleep.' 'Essence' is both the abstract 'ultimate nature' of sleep and the physical smell, 'the scent of apples'—a metaphysical image in T. S. Eliot's sense of the term. Fragrance and sleep blend, as sight and touch merge in
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight. . .
The metaphor is renewed in many other expressions, for example, in 'Magnified apples,' which are apples seen against the sky with daylight accuracy, and also great dream-like spheres. Other similarly precise details are 'blurred through the over-and-over way of recalling and describing them: 'stem end and blossom end,' 'load on load, 'ten thousand thousand.' The closing metaphor of the poem, the woodchuck's 'long sleep,' adds to the strangeness of 'winter sleep' by bringing in the non-human death-like sleep of hibernation. We are finally quite uncertain of what is happening, and that is what the poem is about:
One can see what will trouble This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
In these two lines tone and rhythm work together beautifully, implying a great deal in relation to Frost's metaphor. The slight elevation of 'One can see' recalls the more mysterious seeing of the morning, just as the almost banal lyricism of 'This sleep of mine' sustains the rhythm of dream-confusion. The rest of the second line, barely iambic, barely rhyming, casual and rough, assures us that the speaker has at least one toe in reality. The contrasts of tone and rhythm, fitting the puzzlement of the sleepers state, look ahead to the woodchuck's sleep and back to the initial balance of tones in 'sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still.' The poem is absorbed with 'states-between,' not only of winter sleep, but of all similar areas where real and unreal appear and disappear. 'After Apple-Picking' illustrates exactly Santayana's remark that 'the artist is a person consenting to dream of reality.' The 'consent' in this instance is implied in the perfection of the form.
We have now moved well beyond voices and rhythms to 'the figure a poem makes.' For we should hardly have arrived at the amused confusion of the end of 'After Apple-Picking' unless the poem had carried us on a form that was more than rhythmic, however marvelous. It is characteristic of Frost that the 'sentencing' and the sense are surely controlled, that daylight accuracy and daylight humor are present in statement and tone. It is also characteristic that the figure of sound grows from a metaphorical center.
From The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower