After Apple-Picking, Then What?

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So much of the poetry that comforts us in time of death is infused with images of nature, poems like (in my case) Mary Oliver’s “Lost Children,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Perhaps the reason is that, with death, our natural side asserts its primacy in a way that cannot be denied, forcing us into profound self-reflection.

I am writing today on another nature poem that my wife Julia and I turned to when her father died unexpectedly. Lawrence Miksch was an Iowa former with a farm of 400 acres in southeastern Iowa (close to Washington). At various times he had raised cattle, hogs, soybeans and corn. He and Julia’s mother were driving home from their youngest daughter’s wedding shower and were talking about what a good life their four children had made for themselves. All were married (or about to be married) and Julia was pregnant with Justin. Then Lawrence was hit with a heart attack, said, “My goodness,” and died instantly. Jeanette, who was driving, got him to emergency medical people within minutes but it was all over. He was 62.

Our first instinct when we heard the news was to turn to an anthology of poetry, and one poem that stood out was Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” (cited in full at the end of this entry). We didn’t analyze why the poem was appropriate. We just knew it was. We held each other on the couch as I read the poem aloud.


In retrospect, I understand why this poem stepped forth. It comforted us with the idea that, as tragic as the death was, it conformed nature’s cycles. It gave us a sense of a man passing on after he has performed his life’s work. The harvest, which has been completed, is now done and the farmer can leave with a sense of accomplishment. Granted, there are some things that still could be attended to: “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.” In Lawrence’s case, there were still some rungs left on the ladder of life that could have been climbed: “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree/Toward heaven still.” In farming, there’s always something left to do, and Lawrence had been a very hardworking farmer, getting up at 4 a.m. every morning and often falling asleep on the couch in the early evening. But by every measure, he had lived a full and rich life.

Maybe the poem also consoled us with the idea of death as a kind of rest. “I am done with apple-picking now,” it reads, and later,

For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.

The poem has taken the reader through some of the stresses and strains of farming: the permanent ache of the instep from standing on ladders, the incessant din “of load on load of apples coming in,” the constant vigilance required with each one of the “ten thousand thousand” pieces of fruit (one slip and an apple becomes of no worth), the inability to escape farming even in one’s sleep. How could the end to all of this not seem a kind of relief?

Other images caught us as we grieved. The enchanting image of the ice seemed to capture how Lawrence may have seen the world in his last seconds:

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 . . .

Undoubtedly many of us have picked up a pane of ice and looked through it. Not, to be sure, when we are going about our day-to-day work and just seeing matter-of-fact reality. We do so when we are in a playful or a contemplative mood, at which point the world seems strange and wonderful. We find an imaginative distance at such moments, and the fact that Frost associates this moment with sleep and the weary end of a bountiful season suggests a positive stepping away.

And what of this sleep? John Donne, in his defiant “Death thou must die” sonnet (sonnet 10), belittles death by comparing it to rest and sleep, each of which brings us much pleasure. To quote him directly, “From rest and sleep, which but thy [Death’s] pictures be,/Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow.” I think we wanted to read Lawrence’s death this way.

But the more one looks at the poem’s sleep images, the more complicated they become. That’s the genius of Frost—he gives us poems that seem accessible and self-evident, only to dissolve, like that pane of ice, upon further inspection. The farmer’s sleep isn’t guaranteed to be restful. “One can see what will trouble/This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is,” Frost writes. And what will trouble it? Well, nightmares of apples, for one thing. But also, perhaps, the idea that, when he dies, it will be as though he is just one more apple, accidentally dropped by the farmer and consigned to the cider-apple heap “as of no worth.” This is not a comforting image.

And what’s with the poem’s concluding contrast between the woodchuck’s sleep and human sleep. The woodchuck’s hibernation hints at resurrection. (To quote Donne’s sonnet, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally,/And death shall be no more.”). So is it a sleep that will lead to renewal? Or will it just be an end—“to die: to sleep; no more,” as Hamlet fantasizes before imagining other possibilities. The poem opens the door to endless speculation.

As I say, Julia and I were not working this out as we mourned. We were just looking for a poem that seemed to speak to our pain and our sorrow. And yet, I don’t think the poem would have worked for us if it had been more serenely confident. If the poem had only said something to the effect that “this farmer has lived a bountiful life and now he can peacefully step away,” it would have struck us as pabulum. Frost doesn’t dole out easy reassurance. But he did give us a poem that, at this dark time, provided us a way of dealing with heartbreak. He gave us a gift that we needed.

After Apple-Picking

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.

1914

This entry was posted in Donne (John), Frost (Robert), Shakespeare (William) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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