The sequence and tenses of the poem are a bit confusing and lead one to wonder what is dreamed, what is real, and where the sleep begins. It’s understandable that the speaker should be tired at the end of a day’s apple picking. But the poem says that the speaker was well on his way to sleep before he dropped the sheet of ice, and this presumably occurred in the morning. The speaker has tried and failed to “rub the strangeness” from his sight. Is this a strangeness induced by exhaustion or indicative of the fact that he is dreaming already? Has he, in fact, been dreaming since he looked through the “pane of glass” and entered a through-the-looking-glass world of “magnified apples” and the “rumbling sound / Of load on load of apples coming in”? Or is the sheet of ice simply a dizzying lens whose effect endures? If, in fact, the speaker was well on his way to sleep in the morning, does this lend a greater, more ominous weight to the long sleep “coming on” at the poem’s end?
When we read “After Apple-Picking” metaphorically, we may want to look at it as a poem about the effort of writing poetry. The cider-apple heap then makes a nice metaphor for saved and recycled bits of poetry, and the long sleep sounds like creative (permanent?) hibernation. This is one possible metaphoric substitution among many; it seems plausible enough (though nowise definitive or exclusive). However, our search for “ulteriority” may benefit from respecting, not replacing, the figure of the apples. Apple picking, in Western civilization, has its own built-in metaphorical and allegorical universe, and we should especially remember this when we read a poet whose work frequently revisits Eden and the Fall (. “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” “It is Almost the Year Two Thousand,” “The Oven Bird”). When the poet speaks of “the great harvest I myself desired,” consider also what apples represent in Genesis: knowledge and some great, punishable claim to godliness—creation and understanding, perhaps. This sends us scurrying back to lines 1 and 2 , where the apple-picking ladder sticks through the tree “Toward heaven still.” What has this harvest been, then, with its infinite fruits too many for one person to touch? What happens when such apples strike the earth—are they really of no worth? And looked at in this new light, what does it mean to be “done with apple-picking now”?