You might call "After Apple-Picking" a realist poem, in the same way that you would talk about a realist short story or novel. The poem depicts real-life activities in naturalistic detail, without any direct reference to fantasy or the supernatural. And yet…the setting shifts back and forth from place to place without warning, as in a dream. And Frost touches on religious and supernatural subjects in subtle ways, using apples and ladders and falling things. From reading this poem, you do not know from what perspective it is being narrated. Maybe the whole thing is a dream. Maybe none of it is. What's your interpretation?
Frost shields the reader from knowing the personal and idiosyncratic reasons that the speaker's dreams will be troubled, despite the speaker's desire to share these troubles.
The speaker is already half-asleep from the very beginning of the poem. He is never in a full state of consciousness.
Frost takes an activity (apple-picking) that most would consider either good clean fun or hard manual labor, and gives it an unfamiliar and oh-so-slightly disconcerting edge. Apple-picking is done every year at orchards, and it signals the end of the harvesting season and the beginning of winter. It is a long process that cannot be done in a day or two at a large orchard. But this poem follows the poet Ezra Pound's famous advice: "Make it new." Its perspective of tradition and customs is analogous to the perspective of the speaker of the poem when he looks through that sheet of ice. The disorientation of the experience stays with you long afterwards.
Frost treats apple-picking as a secular ritual, parallel to the rituals of Christianity.
The speaker of this poem is a gentleman-farmer, the Jeffersonian ideal of a true democratic citizen.
The speaker has that feeling of too much of a good thing. He has probably been waiting for the apple harvest all summer, but now there are just so many apples to deal with that he has grown sick and tired of picking them. He is worn out, but we can't quite tell whether it is that "happy tired" feeling. He feelings like he could almost sleep for an entire winter, which sounds great to us, but he is also worried that his sleep will be haunted by dreams about apples and dropping things and, worst of all, cider! Maybe "dissatisfaction" isn't the most accurate word here: "unsettled" might be closer to the mark.
The apple harvest has not met the speaker's expectations, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. He is so taken by surprise that he can only characterize the experience as one of "strangeness."
The speaker's relation to the natural world is haunted by human ideas of sin and the fall from grace. He cannot fully enjoy the harvest as an experience of pure innocence.
The biggest "sin" in this poem is dropping an apple, but the wider concept of sin, corruption, and the Fall of Man (from the Book of Genesis) seems to be hinted at strongly in the language and images. The speaker feels bad for the apples that have touched the ground and are consequently smushed up to make juice instead. This attitude suggests that he might feel bad for the human race as a whole, which often aims for lofty spiritual goals, only to get bruised – or worse – by earthly flaws. Frost seems to have absorbed the sin-haunted mentality of New England, present from the Puritans onward, but he also pushes back against it subtly.
Perhaps taking his cue from the Biblical line that "the wages of sin is death," the speaker fears his own death, in the form of a "long sleep" like the woodchuck's.
The poem demonstrates the power of tradition in the face of reason. Although the speaker does not believe that the fallen apples are worthless, he defers to custom in pitching them into the cider heap.
What is past and what is present in this poem? Is "After Apple-Picking" narrated from within the orchard, or later at night? Did he really look through a sheet of ice that morning, or did his mind produce this memory on its own. In this poem, Frost is not concerned with the facts of the past so much as the imagination's ability to cherry-pick (er, apple-pick?) the ideas and images that are most resonant, then weave them into strange and confusing quilts of memory. Also, memory is not just a mental phenomenon. His body contains its own, no less essential memories of standing on the ladder and cautiously collecting apples for days on end.
The poem exhibits what psychologist Carl Jung called "archetypal memory." The speaker's past is figured in archetypes of humanity as a whole, rather than of individual memories.
The speaker experience memory with all of his senses, and not merely through mental images. He can still see, smell, hear, and feel things from earlier in the day.