Jacob’s Ladder

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This extract comes from North of Boston, a selection of poems from the eminent American poet Robert Frost. Like most of the other poems in the book, Frost’s After Apple Picking reads like a short drama. Like The Mending Wall or the Woodpile , this poem is narrated from a first-person point of view, where the poet refers to himself as “I” and is a principal actor in the poem- continuing to describe his setting, emotions and thoughts throughout. Frost, who is renowned for his figurative use of language, is sometimes counted amongst the ranks of the transcendentalist poets.

Transcendentalism often amounted to drawing upon an individual sense of consciousness whilst eschewing the intellectualism of the day. A greater spiritual appreciation was appraised for the setting that influenced the transcendentalist and, thus, North of Boston is imbued with a dreamy quality whilst still retaining a vivid appreciation of nature. It is also interesting to note that some literary critics have called the transcendentalism an “American Romanticism” movement- and indeed, many of Frost’s poems have a strong inclination toward nature combined with aesthetic appreciation for emotion and feeling.

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After Apple Picking is, in itself, a marvelous representation of Frost’s philosophy and writing style- though it is somewhat unfortunate that no definite intepretations of the poem can be agreed upon. I shall try to give my own: The name of the poem itself is intriguing and somewhat ominous. The decision to call it “After Apple Picking” is telling. The use of the term after conveys a sense of ambiguity and finality- it refers to an obscure period after a definite action. The poem is thus set up as an ambiguous one. Furthermore, the “apple” is introduced as a principal image in the poem.

Thus readers are led to visualize the consequences of apple picking and to anticipate the metaphorical allusion of “Apple Picking”, readied for the ambiguity of the indeterminate “After”. Readers of the poem are immediately struck by the lack of any definite rhyme scheme; from the opening lines, apparently matter-of-fact talk falls into curious chain-like sentences, rich in end-rhymes and, echoes of many sorts. The variation of the poem’s sentences may give it a haphazard and unruly feel; however it also gives the sensation that the poet is vacillating between consciousness and unconsciousness- catching himself just before he dozes off.

This imbues it with the dreary feel that pervades the poem- achieved through the lack of a definite rhyme scheme and variation of sentence length. n Frost’s poetry any deviation, not only from the iambic foot but from the iambic pentameter line as well, is an important marker of the speaker’s state of mind, his control, and his capacity for irony. “After Apple Picking” keeps resolutely returning to pentameter lines, but the speaker is drowsy, and the opening twelve-syllable line – “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree” – is like the last murmured words before sleep.

Of course, it also represents, as does the whole masterful structure of the poem, Frost’s own precise control of tone, as he creates a speaker who is precariously “upon [his] way to sleep. ” This fatigued vulnerability manifests itself in an escalating slippage of control from ten-syllable lines to foreshortened lines like “For all / That struck the earth,” or eleven-syllable lines like “No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble.

” And as the speaker moves toward an increasing intuition of the symbolic underpinnings of his exhaustion, which is the result not just of his picking apples but of other more visceral frustrations and fears, the frequency of these variations increases. (Lines 1, 2, 14, 16, 18, 19, 25, 27, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 39, and 42 vary from the pentameter; only lines 18 and 34 are extra-syllabic Frost begins his poem with graphic visual imagery, “my two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree”. At once the reader is offered a vivid mental picture of what the poet sees.

Whilst the ladder and the tree are synonymous with picking apples, the poet’s choice in the word “through” requires more serious contemplation. The ladder is sticking through the treetop, implying that the climber’s destination is not the tree but somewhere above. This line of thought also allows readers to presage a biblical allusion in the form of “Jacob’s Ladder”: or a dreamt-about ladder to heaven. Giving the dream like quality of the poem, it is conceivable that the poet is implying that he is about to journey to heaven Vis a Vis death. Hence, the theme of sleep and death are jointly introduced through this biblical allusion.

This line of analysis is followed through by the poet’s confirmation that the ladder is pointed toward “heaven still”. The word still may be taken to mean two things: on one hand, the ladder is pointing “still higher” than the apple tree; however, it can also be attached toward the following line where it would read “Still… there’s a barrel I didn’t fill”. The concept of regret is thus brought to the fore. Frost uses the biblical allusion as well as the subtle placement of his diction to introduce his major themes of Sleep, Death and regret within the first two lines.

It is as if the poet has these thoughts at the front of his mind and cannot restrain them: alluding to the fact that his time is running out. One would also do well to note that these themes have been introduced through the medium of visual imagery- of a ladder and a tree, of apples and a barrel. This falls in line Frost’s general method and can be explored throughout the poem. The poet’s acute sense of aesthetic accuracy can be seen in the next stanza where he pays notice to a paltry “two or three” apples, regretting that he didn’t pick them.

This seems to be a tip of the hat to the saying “one in the hand is better than two in the bush”- that the poet cannot appreciate his own efforts and resigns himself to saying “I am done” shows that he is disappointed with himself and that he gives up. In typical transcendentalist homage to feeling, Frost has brought out another emotion in his poem. Frost makes use of kinesthetic imagery when he says “winter sleep”- this adds further complexities to Frost’s meaning. Reader’s are already aware that Frost’s narrator is nodding off in the dreary flow of the poem, but the addition of “winter” gives pause for thought.


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