Heartbreak and the Holidays: “The Feel of Not to Feel It” and Keats

28 11 2012

In Drear-Nighted December

John Keats

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.

Ah! would ’twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy!
But were there ever any
Writhed not at passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.

Ah, December— it’s the end of the year, (and if you want to believe the Mayans— maybe the end of the world? Gasp!) so naturally it invites a certain melancholic reflection, a yearning for days gone by. Honestly, I think it’s a really good thing that December is full of celebratory anticipation and glistening lights, because at least in my part of the world, it might get overwhelmingly gloomy at times.

This would be especially true in those years when the first snows don’t fall until late December. The first snows are pretty magical for many of us, especially on the heels of an extraordinarily mild winter last year. Even those of us who grow snow-weary by January, February, or March, tend to enjoy the first snows that cover everything in crisp shimmering white, hiding all the muddy leaves and abandoned toys in the back yard.

But, especially without the snow, things are often drear-nighted, so I can feel what Keats is saying here. Things do get pretty gray, cold, and bare. What a perfect metaphor for how you feel when you are heartbroken. Gray, cold, and bare.



And really, is there a worse month to be heartbroken than December? First, there is the natural world that seems to be dead all around you, and then there are the terribly long nights. On top of all that, there is the pressure to have a most joyous and wonderful season of togetherness with the ones you love. Everyone talks about it, and there are images of love everywhere.

So, what if your love isn’t there anymore?

It’s a tough time for many people, especially those who know “the feel of not to feel it.”

This poem looks at how poignant romantic heartbreak is. It is one of my favorite poems reflecting on heartbreak and that hopeless anguish that feels so suffocating. It captures that despair, doesn’t apologize, and doesn’t offer hope. Keats knows that when you are heartbroken, you don’t want to hear people trying to cheer you up.

Heartbreak sucks, and you can feel as lousy as you want without feeling guilty about it. Go ahead and wallow in it for a while. It’s okay.

Keats says it is okay, and he is like the best poet who ever lived.

Frozen light

Frozen light (Photo credit: Nanaki)

In the first stanza, he looks at a frozen sleety tree with bare branches and thinks about how the tree is just fine. It is not at all upset in its current state even though it once had beautiful leaves, and the reason this is possible is that the tree has no memory of that better time. None the wiser, the tree is content, and it will bloom again in the spring without fear of losing the leaves, and the cycle continues.


Next, in the second stanza, the speaker’s attention turns to a frozen brook. In

Frozen Brook

Frozen Brook (Photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton)

a similar way, he considers how lucky the brook is that it has no memory of the happy time when it once flowed freely. Even encased in an icy prison, the brook is perfectly happy because of the “sweet forgetting.” The brook has no memory of Apollo in his hot “summer look”, so it is happy even in a less comfortable situation.

In the final stanza, the speaker laments that people don’t have this ability to forget, too. Instead, we all are doomed to writhe in the pain of remembering happy times before our heartbreak, and there is nothing that can be done to ease the pain.

Keats believes “The feel of not to feel it” is so excruciating that is was never “said in rhyme”. That might seem like a contradiction at first. I mean, there are loads of poems about heartbreak, right? In fact, isn’t this a poem about it??

Well, yes,

But what he is saying is that the feeling cannot be truly expressed in words; it can’t be said in rhyme. It can’t be communicated at all, only felt.

But Keats! Isn’t It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?


Keats does not agree at all. It is painful and he wishes he could just erase it from his memory. I agree that this is how it feels when heartbreak is fresh, but I don’t agree in the long run. I’m not going to delete anyone from my memory.

I think Keats would have liked “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” don’t you? What are your thoughts? Would you push delete on a lost love if you could? Would you be happier if you couldn’t remember?


Have a Contentious and Uncomfortable Holiday; You May Save Humankind: Thoughts on “A Poison Tree”

19 11 2012

 A Poison Tree

By William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


There’s a whole spectrum of confrontation styles out there.  On one end we have people who do almost anything to avoid it, and on the other we have people who seem to thrive on it.  You know the type; they throw conflict wherever they go as haphazardly as a little flower girl tossing flowers before a bride. 

Happily, with the exception of teenage girls, most people occupy a space somewhere in between the two extremes. 

I don’t think Blake is espousing an overly combative lifestyle in this poem, but he does have a pretty strong message for those of us who lean too far toward avoiding conflict at all costs.  He reminds people like me, who tend to avoid conflict like I would avoid a snotty nosed child, that when anger is not expressed and resolved, it is dangerous. 

This poem consists of four quatrains, or four-lined stanzas, and the first couplet of the first stanza covers what happens when you tell your friend that you are angry—just like in real life, it is over and done with fast. 

The rest of the poem, however,  delves into what happens when you swallow that anger and “plant” it like a seed inside you. The tree metaphor extends throughout the poem. 

Blake believes that when you swallow your anger, the seed that grows within you is nurtured by all the attention you give it.  Let’s face it, when you are mad at someone, don’t you just keep stewing over it until you do something about it?  It can take over your whole life if you’re not careful.  Anger can easily turn into hatred, and hatred and fear are really indistinguishable twin sisters.  I can’t think of a time when hatred exists for a reason other than fear.  Can you? 

The tree grows and grows with your fears and the tears you water it with. 

Eventually, you start to grow fond of  it and really care for it.  There is a sick pleasure in holding onto grudges—all the rehashing, the plotting for revenge, the sneakiness, the victimized feeling. 

The tree grows and grows till it bears fruit, a shiny poisoned apple, which you offer to your enemy. 

He takes a bite, dies, and you are glad to see him dead beneath your tree. 


Poison Apple

Poison Apple (Photo credit: andy castro)

What Blake is saying is that anger, when not dealt with, can take hold of your life and destroy it.  You can become transformed from someone who may have been legitimately wronged into  someone who, like a wicked stepmother, delights in murder—or if you want to take it down a notch—delights in hurting other people. 

Alert! Anytime you see an apple in literature, especially one that brings about destruction, you can be

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and ...

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and Eve. Beech wood, 1533. Bode-Museum, Berlin (Erworben 1830, Königliche Schlösser, Gemäldegalerie Kat. 567) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

pretty sure it is an allusion to the biblical apple in the Adam and Eve creation story.  The apple represents man’s downfall, so it is possible that Blake is saying that one of the faults that leads to man’s destruction and fall from a utopic life is repressed anger. 

This anger too easily develops into violence. 


Hopefully this poem can help us all deal with the uncomfortable nature of confrontation and calmly tell people when we are mad for any reason.

 Maybe we can stop some of the hatred/ fear in the world by doing so. 

For many of us, there is going to be a lot of family time coming up soon with the start of the holiday season.  Consider blowing away any seeds of anger that you may have by expressing your feelings, even if they are slightly confrontational.  You don’t want to grow any poison trees. 

And, if you happen to have a poison tree already fully grown, chop that sucker down before it bears any poison apples.

The Sparkly Grass and The Beauteous Evenings: Divinity in Children and Nature

14 11 2012

         It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free

         By William Wordsworth


          It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,

          The holy time is quiet as a Nun

          Breathless with adoration; the broad sun

          Is sinking down in its tranquility;

          The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea:

          Listen! the mighty Being is awake,

          And doth with his eternal motion make

          A sound like thunder–everlastingly.

          Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,

          If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,

          Thy nature is not therefore less divine:

          Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;

          And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,

          God being with thee when we know it not.


Isn’t it lovely how when stormy, gray weather subsides, we feel a renewed appreciation for simpler things?  I often wonder how people in tropical places feel when spring rolls around.  Do they even notice?  That first day when I can go outside in shorts is my favorite day of the year (after Christmas Eve, which almost goes without saying.)


Sandy blew through here without doing much damage, thankfully, but it was pretty dreary for a while, and there was a bucket load of anxiety caused by relentless calls to make doomsday preparations. 


And then, we had some spectacularly warm, pretty days. 


Thankful for this little weather gift, we took advantage of a little more outside time before the deep freeze settles in, as it is scheduled to do sometime soon.  My girls were nowhere near as impressed with the weather as I was. 


It made me think of this poem.  In fact, in the middle of one of them having a tantrum the other day at the park, I asked her if she knew she was wasting the beauteous day, calm and free? 


She didn’t respond. 


This is a very personal sonnet from Wordsworth, who was writing mostly about politics at the time.  The story goes that this poem was inspired by an actual walk along the beach with his nine year old daughter, Caroline, who he was just meeting for the first time.  He and Caroline’s mother were engaged, but the French Revolution caused them to be separated.  Wordsworth ended up marrying someone else.    


So, it is no surprise that he is thinking of all things holy to him when he first meets her, because meeting your own child, no matter how old she might be, is a pretty holy experience.  For Wordsworth, and the rest of the Romantics, divinity could be readily found in nature and in children, and that is just what we see here. 


In the octave, the first eight lines, Wordsworth compares the evening to a nun who is breathless or awe-struck in worship.  In a kind of paradox, it is both an awesome and tranquil time.  It is a time of ultimate peace and serenity, mixed with wonder and admiration.  It’s a time when you feel connected to yourself, your surroundings, and the beyond. 


The infinite waves that crash to shore remind him of “the mighty Being”, and His infinite nature. 

How’s this for beauteous?


Moving on to the sestet, or last six lines of the sonnet, his attentions turn to the “dear Girl” who walks with him.  She clearly doesn’t feel the same solemnity that he does in this moment.


 (How many of us who struggle to get our children to take interest in such things can relate to this?!) 


But, he believes that his daughter is not at all oblivious to the holiness of the moment.  On the contrary, he believes children are much closer to God in their day-to-day lives,  that they are “in Abraham’s bosom all the year” and therefore are not as moved by what to speaker believes are striking examples of His existence. 


To them, the world is always full of amazement.   


This morning, as my (almost) three year old daughters and I walked by the sliding glass door on the way to breakfast, one said, “Sparkly grass.”  Although it wasn’t said without emotion, it wasn’t quite an exclamation—more like a thoughtful observation.


 It wasn’t overly extraordinary to her, probably because it was just one more in an unending series of beautiful things the world offers.  The sunshine reflecting off the frost on the grass in the backyard was really beautiful, but I doubt I would have stopped to look if she hadn’t noticed. 


I hope you have a beauteous evening, calm and free, and I hope your grass is sparkly in the morning. 


How Do You Help Fight the Blueblack Cold? “Those Winter Sundays” and Gratitude

9 11 2012

Those Winter Sundays

By Robert Hayden


Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.


I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,


Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?



In November, many of us reflect a little more on what we have and what we are grateful for.  One of my favorite poems about gratitude, or probably more accurately, regret over ingratitude, is “Those Winter Sundays”.


The speaker, an adult, reflects back with regret on the way he and the rest of his family treated their father while he was growing up.  His father was a hard-working man.  Simply by using the word “too” in the first line, we know that for this father, every day was a work day, even including the “day of rest”. 


His hands ached from his labors, but still, he got up before the rest of the family to warm the house.  He fought that blueblack cold alone till it splintered and warmed.  Only when the house warmed did he wake his family.


Martel and van Over have friends for dinner an...

Spintering the cold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one thanked him.


In fact, they were all pretty indifferent to him.

 This man gave and gave, and they took and took.


I think it is possible that the speaker is being a little bit too hard on himself here.  Children are self-centered by nature, and I think if we are being honest, most of us are pretty horrified when we think about what brats we were to our parents at least at some point in our youth. 


I, myself, was pretty bratty till my late twenties.  My mother and I can laugh about it now. 


When he says, “what did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices”, I believe that he really didn’t know.  So, how can he blame himself for something that he didn’t understand at the time?


What is most important here is that he realizes it now. 


He can’t go back and change things that are long past, but he can do something about it.  He can recognize those sacrifices, both small and large, that people are making for him now.  Plus, maybe now he’ll be more ready and able to make similar offerings of “love’s austere and lonely offices”  for his family, and do so without feeling the need to be thanked. 


Do you have someone who splinters the cold for you? I hope you do.


Or maybe a better question for reflection is how do you splinter the cold for those you love?

Instead of feeling like a jerk for all the crappy things you did as a child after reading this poem, try to think of all the ways you can help someone else fight off that blueblack cold. 

I don’t know anyone who isn’t cold.   

Is it Possible to be a Feminist Stay-at-Home-Mom? Redefining “Women’s Issues”

25 10 2012




Woman Work

I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I’ve got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The can to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.

Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.

Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
‘Til I can rest again.

Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.

Sun, rain, curving sky
Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
You’re all that I can call my own.

Maya Angelou

In our modern conversation, the phrase “women’s issues” has become code for birth control coverage and abortion rights. How insulting is that? Sorry buddies, but this woman has far more pressing issues in my life.

I agree that both of these topics have a place in the conversation, but women are far more complex and are concerned with more than sex. Let’s try to expand that definition a bit.

Take a look at Maya Angelou’s “Woman Work,” and you’ll find that “women’s issues” extend well beyond reproductive matters.

The speaker in this poem starts out with a long series of couplets detailing her daily “to do” list. The rhyme and the rhythm in this first section creates a sense of the frantic pace of being a woman, and in particular, being a mother. Interestingly enough, even though the rhythm makes it sound a bit frantic, it also makes it sound a bit monotonous, as many days in the life of a mother can (paradoxically) seem.

If you take an even closer look at her list, you’ll see that it isn’t arranged chronologically—getting the tots dressed comes way after “company to feed”, “garden to weed”, and “clothes to mend”. This disorganization paints an accurate image of a woman with so much to do that she can’t keep things straight or think things through all the way. The way she’s running through her list makes me believe she feels overwhelmed in her many duties.

Woman in a rowing boat

Woman in a rowing boat (Photo credit: National Media Museum)

I feel overwhelmed for her just reading it. I want to go over and give her a hand.

But then I take pause. Things really haven’t changed too much for the modern mother since then, have they? Our culture has given us the script, and it reads that mothers must do everything. And do everything perfectly.


We cannot bi-locate. We cannot be perfect moms and perfect at work. Something has to give. We can pretend that we can do it all, but guess what? No one is happy doing that. Look around.

The speaker in the poem is a mother who works outside of the home. Check out where the two “work” related items fall in her list, the very last two:

“Then see about the sick/ And the cotton to pick.”

Her two outside jobs, tending to the sick and picking cotton, are the very last things on her overburdened mind.

That reminds me of where my work priorities were when I returned to work after having my twins. I really wanted to do it all. But I wasn’t on top of my game at work, and I wasn’t being the mom I wanted to be, either. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a good enough mother, and a good enough teacher, but that wasn’t enough for me. I had to make a painful choice.

And I know I am not alone.

Getting back to the poem for a minute, there is a dramatic change in tone and form after she goes through her list. The speaker, in contrast to the first part, is now speaking in very eloquent quatrains. She speaks poetically about her desire for a bit of rest and a return to nature. She addresses the sun, rain, wind, snow, and star shine, directly in what literary types call an “apostrophe”. What it boils down to is that she feels like she has nothing except nature. She doesn’t have any personal possessions.

Lately, I have had several conversations about the incredible difficulties women have deciding what to do after having children.

It is hard to leave a career you built, a career that you love, a career that makes you feel modern and feminist. But for many of us after having a baby, it is what we feel is the right thing to do for our families. It is the only option we are comfortable with.

I am the last person I ever thought would feel this way.

When I was pregnant with my twins, my superintendent came to talk to me a few days before I started maternity leave. I remember sitting sideways in one of the student desks as I talked to her (the only way my considerable girth would fit in the desk.) I told her I would be back in eight weeks, no doubt. She told me that I may change my mind. I was adamant that I wouldn’t. I had been there for nine years, and I had a position that I loved.

Well, I returned to work sixteen months later only to finish out the semester and resign when part-time work wouldn’t be negotiated. I am home now, and I am at peace with that decision, even though I miss having the ownership of something outside of the home, kind of like the speaker in the poem, in a way.

For me, the most important “woman’s issue” is finding a place of balance between work and home. Like the speaker in the poem, this would let mothers have the ability to both mother and have at least a partial ownership in their working world.

It would do MUCH more for us as individuals and as a nation if our employers could help mothers return to work in a more comfortable way; maybe let them share positions; work from home; who knows, get creative!

If we let Mom be present in her children’s lives more, AND let her still work in some capacity, we all will benefit, but


our children

will benefit.

This issue is more important to our nation than who is paying for the pills.

Some say that being a stay-at-home-mom is a luxury of the wealthy.


If you are not wealthy, it comes with considerable financial sacrifices, yes—but, for many, it can be done with creativity and serious downsizing, prioritizing.

Does that make me less feminist? Some would say yes.

Others would say No, and think yes.

No matter. I am happy with my rewritten script.

It’s not Him, it’s You. Reflections on the World’s Best Love Poem.

22 10 2012

Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

any experience, your eyes have their silence:

in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,

or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me

though i have closed myself as fingers,

you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens

(touching skilfully, mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and

my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,

as when the heart of this flower imagines

the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals

the power of your intense fragility: whose texture

compels me with the color of its countries,

rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens; only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

By: e e cummings

A few days ago, a friend and I were having a wine infused chat and discussion slowly turned to a recent development in a very old love story.

She found out her first love was talking to one of our mutual friends.

Now, before I go on, let me stress that my friend is a truly happily married woman. She would never consider a life with the guy from her past, but yet somehow, twenty years or so later, it still matters that he is talking to someone we know.

Is that crazy?

She wonders why she still cares, and if this means that she could still harbor secret feelings for this guy.

She wanted to know what I thought about the whole thing.

I told her that I definitely do not believe that she isn’t carrying a flame, and it’s certainly not a shameful feeling.

What she is experiencing isn’t a yearning for an individual person; it’s a longing for a time when things were exciting in a more tangible way: A time when the insanity of first love with all its mystical powers had her by the throat. A time when she, quite literally, lost her mind to love for the first time.

Sure, life is still exciting in so many ways as we get older and more grow in mature, deep, and meaningful relationships with our spouses and family. But it is an undeniably different type of excitement.

Most love poetry makes me gag. Well, that’s not fair. Cheesy love poetry makes me gag, and I have a very low tolerance for cheese. This love poem, however, is one of my favorite poems of all time. We have a long past together, this poem and I.

When I was sixteen, I copied this poem over and over in hopes of memorizing it. It was all over my brown paper bag-covered text books. (I did this instead of learning math.) Honestly, I think I loved this poem almost more than the guy I thought I loved at the time.

Even though I didn’t fully understand the poem back then, my instincts about its perfection were right. If someone had asked me to explain it, I would’ve stumbled around for words and wouldn’t have been able to. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to write an essay on it or anything like that.

Now, as I have matured as a reader, I understand it much more, and find it to be the perfect poem about the insanity, beauty, and confusion of first love.

For me, it is a love poem to first love itself, not to a specific individual.

The speaker in this poem is on a journey to somewhere he has never been—crazy in love. He is completely mystified and awe-struck at his love’s ability to control him. He communicates this by using confusing imagery like talking about eyes having silence, for example.

He compares himself to a rose, which gets my “fromage sensor” going a bit. I mean, come on. A rose in a love poem? But, false alarm, this rose metaphor is completely unconventional.

Rose et amour....rosa y amor ....rose d'amour ...

(Photo credit: photosylvia / silabox)

The speaker is a tightly closed rose bud that his love can open up petal by petal to make him in full bloom, but just as she has the power to open him, she also has the power to shut him up tightly.

There’s the rub.

Sure, first love is awesome, but it also has the power to hurt deeply, and it usually does.

“nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals the power of your intense fragility”

Intense fragility. That’s a great paradox for first love. It is so strong yet so very fragile.

The “you” here is first love in general, not a specific person. First love brings “death and forever with each breathing”.

Death and forever—another great paradox to explain first love.

What a roller coaster ride it is! Combine that with the fact that first love typically happens during a most hormone-surging time in our lives, and we wonder why the memory sticks with us?

Come on, of course it stays with us!

The last stanza is my favorite. The speaker is resigned to the mystical power that first love has on him. There is no way to communicate the way he feels, which he expresses by using another unconventional image with “the voice of your eyes”.

He is a traveler to an unknown land. He’s lost, and he doesn’t understand the culture or what to do next. So, his poem about this feeling is equally confusing at times, but it still somehow leaves the reader with the message that first love is beautiful and confusing. It makes us feel powerful and powerless at the same time.

It’s intense and there is no way to erase that from our memories. And we shouldn’t want to erase it either.

It is about the experience of the first falling that you are remembering.

Do you have a favorite love poem? A poem about first love, maybe? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Meaningful Work Beats Perfect Work at the End of the Day: A look at “After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost

11 10 2012

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.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)


How are you doing?   Really, how are you doing?

Do you stop and think about it often?  Do you consciously evaluate yourself?  When you do (if you do) do you tend to see what you have done well, or are you pretty critical and think mostly about what you did wrong or how you can improve?

Do you ever question whether the work you are doing is what you really want to do with your life? 

 I really like this poem for its ability to refocus my attention to what I am doing right, rather than getting mired down in what that jerk of an internal critic likes to spew out at me.  (Most of us have that nagging voice, right?  The one who tells us that we aren’t good enough?)

This poem shines light on the importance not of being perfect, but of living a life full of meaning.  It doesn’t matter what the work is, what matters is that you find it meaningful and you want to do it.

There are layers of meaning in this poem, like in most great poems, so let’s start with a look at the literal level. 

We have a speaker who is reflecting and evaluating himself after the season’s apple harvest. 

The harvest wasn’t perfect; there might have been some apples he missed, but he is done and overwhelmingly tired from his hard labor.  In fact, he has been tired since the early morning when he looked through a sheet of ice he scooped out of a water trough.  He holds the ice up and things look distorted through it; he lets the ice fall to the ground. 

He has been working so hard that he knows he will even dream of work. (Don’t you just hate those work dreams!  It’s not fair, right?!)

  He knows trippy distorted apples will appear and disappear in his dreams; he will even be able to feel the pressure and ache of the ladder on his feet, feel the sway of the tree limbs as he reaches out to pick his apples, and he will hear the rumbling sound of apples being unloaded into the cellar. 

The tense changes to the present when he describes his dream, and lots of critics like to focus on that.  Dream and reality intermesh in this poem, and it becomes unclear, but  I think it is because he knows exactly what his dreams will be, since he has had many similar dreams after a hard day’s (or season’s) work. 

Next come the most important lines of the poem, at least in terms of developing tone:

“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.”

He is very tired, but it is what he wanted

Did he have an unreasonable harvest goal that left him exhausted?  Or is he saying that he is exhausted from his hard work that yielded a great harvest? 

Either way, what is most important is that it was what HE wanted. 

He loved his work—he cherished those ten thousand thousand apples.  He was careful with each and didn’t let them fall to get bruised and sent off for cider. 

So, yes, he is tired, but it is a good tired.  The harvest was a wonderfully satisfying experience. 

But still, he says his sleep will be troubled.  What is he troubled by?   Is it because he doesn’t know what kind of sleep he is preparing to enter?  He wonders if it is going to be like hibernation or human sleep. 

In this poem, apple-picking serves as a metaphor for anyone’s life work, anyone’s life purpose. 

Instead of apple-picking, what are you doing?  Is it what you desire?  If so, no matter how hard you work, it will be worth it, even if you are not perfect at your work.

You may get tired, but it will be a good tired if you are doing what you want to do.  If it is what someone else desires, all the work will be drudgery, misery.

We can also read this poem as a metaphor for life itself. 

If I was teaching this poem in a class, I would discuss the symbolism of the seasons before reading this.  It is nearly winter in this poem, and that usually means death is approaching. 

Not only is it the end of autumn, it is the end of this man’s labor for the season, and the end of a day.  Lots of “ends” here, right?  Add to that all of the talk to sleep (six times) and dreaming, and being tired, drowsing. . .and LONG sleep, and it becomes highly probable that the speaker is dying. 

He is evaluating his life’s work, and feels confident that he did the best he could with it, even though he realizes that it wasn’t a perfect life. Maybe he didn’t get to fill all the barrels he wanted to fill. Even so, he is all set; he is done with whatever he wanted to do in this world. He has had “too much of apple-picking” and is ready to go.  The only trouble that remains is the uncertainty about what death will be like.

Ah, and that is a little “fruit of knowledge” that we all try to pick, isn’t it?

What a pretty little poem. 

Apple: the fruit of knowledge. What does he still want to know?