"After Apple-Picking" has often been compared to Keats’ "Ode to Autumn," as if it were primarily a celebration of harvest. But its elevated diction (quite distinct from anything else in the book) as well as its images, mood and theme, all suggest a greater affinity with Keats' :Ode to a Nightingale." In that weary, drowsy poem the speaker longs to escape through art, symbolized by the nightingale, from the pain of the real world and wants to melt into the welcome oblivion of death:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk,
Frost's narrator, standing on the earth but looking upward, is also suspended between the real and the dream world:
My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree Toward heaven still And there's a barrel that I didn't fill.
The long and short lines, the irregular rhyme scheme, the recurrent participles (indicating work), the slow tempo and incantatory rhythm all suggest that repetitive labor has drained away his energy. The perfume of the apples - equated through "essence" with profound rest - has the narcotic, almost sensual effect of ether. Frost's speaker, like Keats', is suffused with drowsy numbness, yet enters the visionary state necessary to artistic creation:
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.
The glassy piece of ice - which distorts, transforms and makes the familiar seem strange - is, like Keats' nightingale, a symbol of art. In his dream state (the word "sleep" occurs six times in the poem),
Magnified apples appear and disappear, Stem end and blossom end, And every fleck of russet showing clear,
and he rhythmically sways on the ladder when the boughs bend with his weight. As the apples are gathered - and the poem written - he becomes both physically and mentally exhausted:
For I have had too much Of apple-picking: I am overtired Of the great harvest I myself desired.
He needs to regenerate himself, like the hibernating woodchuck, by a long, deathlike winter sleep, so he will be ready to reenter the poet's dream world and achieve another spurt of creativity. In "After Apple-Picking" Frost achieves a perfect fusion of pastoral and poetic labor.
From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.