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After Apple-Picking and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
Robert Frost is undoubtedly one of the greatest poets in the history of American literature, a person who made the whole world acquainted with rural America and whose ideas influenced several generations of readers. He was really special among all other modernist poets as he was equally appreciated both by the public and the critics. Creative work of this poet is very complex and diverse, and this particular paper is focused upon two famous poems written by Robert Frost – After Apple-Picking and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. The first verse was written in 1914 and was initially published in Frost’s second poetry collection North to Boston. Louis Untermeyer considers this, perhaps, a most anthologized poem by Frost as “so vivid a memory of an experience that the reader absorbs it physically”. The other verse was written in 1922 and then was published in 1923, in New Hampshire volume; the poet himself defined this work as “my best bid for remembrance”. These two literary pieces seem to be very peculiar for Frost’s poetry as they combine rural topics with deep philosophical meditations. In general, the themes, which Frost applied to, were quite unexpected for modernist poetry and turned out to be a reflection of his own ideas, thoughts, life experience, and philosophy.
It is impossible to write about Robert Frost without mentioning critical appraisals. It is absolutely unusual and, perhaps, unprecedented in the history of the modern world literature, but both personality and creative works of Robert Frost have always been highly praised by Robert Faggen, who states perhaps the most compliment still true opinion on Frost’s work and genius:
More than almost any American poet of the twentieth century and even of the nineteenth century, Robert Frost became an icon in his own time, an almost granite-like figure worthy of a place on Rushmore or a similar pantheon of poets.
However, Robert Frost definitely stands aside from all the poetic trends introduced by his countrymen and contemporaries – Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and others: his works are not overloaded with symbolism, his language is plain and clear, and, on the whole, he is much closer to representatives of Romanticism than to modernist poets. According to Marson, this simplicity is rather elusive, as “Frost's ostensibly simple mode of expression becomes far more complex as one tries to sift through an abundance of possible interpretations”. This statement can be proved with the analysis of the poems under consideration of this essay.
Two poetic works give vivid pictures of rural surroundings; such scenery is very typical of Frost’s poetic works, as he, unlike other modernist poets, preferred good old countryside landscapes rather than much more modern urban ones. Most scholars connect his love for nature and landscape to a particular area, which Frost has always been fond of – New England:
He writes about the seasons, preoccupied largely with fall and winter, the rural people and farmers who made their living off the land, the brooks and flora specific to the region.
Frost’s brilliant pen helps to create a live portrayal in a reader’s imagination, transforming such ordinary activities as apple-picking and tree contemplation into deeds, which are worth poeticizing. For example, the initial stanza of 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 /Besides it…”) shows a perfect metaphor of the divine nature of agricultural activities and countryside life: the ladder faces not simply sky, but heaven. Again, an impressive metaphor of snowfall is used in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (“He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow.”). Frost wants his reader to see woods that ‘fill up with snow’ rather than snow falling down on the trees. Such reaccentuation once again highlights the poet’s devotedness to the landscape rather than to weather phenomenon.
Bright and picturesque descriptions of nature of these poems of Frost form the scenery for expression of deeper thoughts, which, in their turn, allow various interpretations – both from realistic and symbolic points of view. Images created by the poet, taken separately, can be viewed as hints and allusions to some key concepts of the Western culture. For example, the image of a ladder “sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still” in After Apple-picking can be interpreted as the road of life, in the course of which people try to do their best to reach the Kingdom of God. In general, the overall process of apple-picking described in the poem strictly reminds of the famous Biblical story of the fall from grace, when a man and a woman were driven out of Eden. Another association can be drawn from this allusion – apples here can be interpreted as numerous sins, which a person picks up during their whole life, and the accent here is that the total amount of sins committed by the humanity affects the earth badly:
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 all.
That struck the earth… (“After Apple-picking”)
It seems that such not very obvious association is typical of Robert Frost, who modestly expressed his religious beliefs, and, probably, wanted to leave his reader some free space for further interpretations.
What makes Frost’s poetry special is that his verse can be interpreted from different angles, using different tools, and all the time these interpretations will be productive and showing new facets of sense. For instance, another interpretation of apple-picking imagery, a realistic one, is suggested by Fagan, who writes that here the image of not filled barrel suggests that “the essence of difficult rural life is illustrated through the descriptions of hard work and work that is never done” (24). Indeed, the duality of Frost’s poems caused their extreme popularity among readers with different cultural and educational background, who could decrypt the senses of the verse in their individual mode. Such writing method seems to be very productive as it gives a poem an incredible interpretative potential.
The vividness and exquisite realistic impression of After Apple-picking is also secured by the metric organization of the poem. An interesting observation on this is made by Faggen, according to his perspective, the initial lines of the poem, which tell about a ladder, are arranged in a peculiar way to remind a reader of a shaky garden ladder:
Frost breaks the exquisite rhythms of the first sentence over five lines of varying lengths, intensifying the effect of a ladder swaying with the tree. The sixth line, a complete sentence unto itself, falls into pentameter and underscores the finality it states. The weight of that line suggests that a great deal more is at stake here than a day in the orchard, though Frost would be the last person to deprecate the labor in its own literal vitality.
In general, Frost’s verse and the metrical system seemed rather conservative among the carnival of blank verse employed by his peers. It is obvious, however, that in spite of the fact that the poet used traditional verse forms such as lyric quatrains, rhymed couplets, and sonnets, he “deployed them with an uncommon freshness”.
Like After Apple-picking, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening conveys personal experience and contains meditations connected with it. The scenery of this verse is not simply a description of nature but bears strong symbolism. The persona of the poem stops to admire the beautiful landscape of snowy trees in the darkness and, perhaps, to meditate upon something. Moreover, the poem is emotionally charged, and each line makes the reader feel the so-called participation effect when they can literary see the picture and sense the emotions, which are available for the narrator. Impressive is the correlation between comparatively modest means of sense expression (Frost does not employ colorful epithets when he gives the picture of landscape) and associations and images they evoke:
…He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow…
…Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year. (“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)
This verse is a good example of Frost’s concept of nature as a specific environment, which always maintains specific interrelationship with a human. For Frost nature is not just pastoral landscape, easy to admire, but “often either something to be feared or something with which to contend or both”. In this very verse, the poet gives special meaning to all emanations of nature – to snow-covered trees, which together with frozen lake form a picture of magic and lethargic beauty and to a horse, which definitely does not relinquish humans in the ability to think and drive conclusions (“My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near…”). It is obvious that for Frost, nature is not a servant of a human, but a living and thinking organism; therefore, this opinion makes him closer to modern eco-critics.
This poem again demonstrates the specific ‘double bottom’ of Frost’s poetic works. There is one more human in the verse apart from the narrator, and this is a mysterious ‘he’, whose woods the persona stopped to watch and admire. From my point of view, Frost deliberately leaves here much space for interpretation; if spelled like ‘he’ this person can be viewed as just a farmer or whoever living in the area. However, if spelled like ‘He’, the whole verse acquires a new unexpected meaning. For example, the lines “Whose woods these are I think I know. /
His house is in the village though…” and “He gives his harness bells a shake /
To ask if there is some mistake…” definitely hint at church somewhere in the rural area.
The common motif that unites both After Apple-picking and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is the motif of sleep, rather common in Frost’s poems. In the first poem, this motif is realized in the structure of poetic narration itself. The persona meditates in the state close to lethargic, inspired by the aroma of apples (“One can see what will trouble This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is…”). The second verse just hints at a possibility of sleeping, which is the only perspective, “But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep”. In my opinion, in both cases sleep is the metaphor of death and non-being. In After Apple-picking the persona is close to this state and ponders on their life road, which apple-picking is a symbol of, “For I have had too much / Of apple-picking: / I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired”. The narrator of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is far from death and non-being, as he has a lot of things to do and lots of promises to keep, which keep him ‘awake’. The repetition of the last two lines of the poem can be interpreted as an artistic attempt to underline and accentuate the inevitability and irreversibility of death.
To conclude, Robert Frost’s poetry is very complex and multifaceted. It reflects philosophic and cultural ideas of the poet, and its specific structure makes it easy to be interpreted from different points of view and on different levels. These are the factors that make Frost’s poetry applicable to readers of all times.