Monday, October 31, 2016


A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady's fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft. 

When I put my garden to bed last month, I left some of those small, yellow pear tomatoes on the ground.  There were more than I could use or even give away, so I left some behind, unharvested.  Perhaps some passerby would pick them up and take them home; perhaps some animal would take sustenance from them; perhaps, forgotten and left, they would decompose and make my garden plot more fertile for next year.

Robert Frost’s “Unharvested” celebrates that which goes unharvested, that which is forgotten and left, that which we might otherwise regard as failure, a “dead ambition,” a “relinquished desire” (Anonymous). And his comparison of “an apple fall” to the mythic Fall of Humankind suggests the Felix Culpa, or Fortunate Fall, of Christian theology, the idea that human failure was “fortunate” in that it brought us a Redeemer in Jesus Christ, the idea that human suffering is necessary for the achievement of human happiness, that evil can be turned to good and loss to plenitude.

If this interpretation seems to burden a simple and light-hearted poem with a heavy message, bear with me as yet more layers may be uncovered.

Let’s note first that the poem is a variation on a sonnet, fourteen lines of primarily iambic tetrameter (instead of the pentameter of a traditional sonnet), with an oddly asymmetrical rhyme scheme: abacbcdade edff, unlike any “sonnet” you would ever encounter.  Instead of the octet-sestet arrangement of a Petrarchan sonnet or the triple quatrain plus couplet structure of the Shakespearean sonnet, we have a ten-line description followed by a four-line commentary.  Perhaps it’s not a sonnet at all!  Perhaps it’s a playful variation.  Perhaps it’s an abject failure of a sonnet! Perhaps it’s a deliberate design to reinforce that theme of fortunate failure. 

Let’s note also the imagery: “scent of ripeness,” “routine road,” “apple tree,” “summer load,” “trivial foliage,” all suggesting a passerby in a natural, possibly rural, setting.  But then this tree, free of its “load,” breathes “as light as a lady’s fan.”  How does this image of cultured society fit into a nature poem?  Is it a mistake, an oversight, or is it a deliberate anomaly, meant to suggest our human world of imperfection?  

And then this “apple fall” is parenthetically, off-handedly, described as “complete as the apple had given man.”  Now that gets your attention.  We’re not just talking about a bunch of mundane apples on the mundane ground. Now we’re in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  And, in that context, when we read that “The ground was one circle of solid red,” it is difficult not to think of the “red” of passion, of violence, of blood. 

So the apples represent our fallen human nature, our imperfection, our capacity for wrongdoing, our unharvested goodness, our neglect and our failure.  But this human decay, if you will, is celebrated: “May something go always unharvested!”  How boring to be perfect!  “May much stay out of our stated plan....” How boring never to make a mistake!  There is something sweet in the scent of that forgotten “ripeness,” and to smell that “sweetness would be no theft,” that is, to value our failures, to see how suffering can lead to happiness, how loss can be a gift, how evil can be turned into good, is “no theft” from our human capacity for success, virtue, and betterment.

None of this is to say that we rejoice in violence, disease, cruelty, injustice, or pain, but, rather, that we celebrate the opportunities that human life affords us for redemption.

So much for the positive interpretation of Frost’s poem. But are there hidden ambiguities? 

For example, that sweet “scent of ripeness” will soon be a scent of rottenness.  Which is stronger?  Which lasts longer?  And what of that neglectful property owner?  What of the waste of nutritious food in a world where many go hungry?  To what extent is the idea of Felix Culpa a rationalization, an excuse to cover up, paper over, and unjustly exonerate us from our wrongdoings?  However you slice it, when I put my garden to bed last summer, I was just too lazy to clean off my plot and take those unharvested tomatoes to the nearby food shelf.

A tragic world view might suggest our positive interpretation of the poem is just Pollyannaism, that the poem illustrates our human tendency to lie to ourselves and deny the painful truth that indeed there is no redemption.  “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”  We are left with the image of that “circle of solid red,” the blood of billions who have suffered from evil at our human hands.

But surely this is way too heavy a burden for such a light and innocent poem to bear.  Perhaps Frost is just playfully making fun of our human habit of finding self-satisfying explanations for bad behavior. 

Then again, perhaps that seemingly simple poem captures the full complexity of our contradictory human drama.