To feel itself get ripe —
And golden hang — while farther up —
The Maker's Ladders stop —
And in the Orchard far below —
You hear a Being — drop —
A Wonderful — to feel the Sun
Still toiling at the Cheek
You thought was finished —
Cool of eye, and critical of Work —
He shifts the stem — a little —
To give your Core — a look —
But solemnest — to know
Your chance in Harvest moves
A little nearer — Every Sun
The Single — to some lives.
F467 (1862) J483
I can't help but think of another New England poet, Robert Frost, when I read this. His "After Apple Picking" also has a tree where fruit ripens and is picked or falls, a harvest time, and the sense that souls ripen in their season. No doubt Frost read Dickinson (in fact, he taught at Amherst College off and on for over forty years, beginning in 1917 -- not that long after Dickinson's poems began to be published), and like her, his use of everyday detail is frequently metaphysical. I think of him as in her lineage.
In Frost's poem, he is the apple picker; it is his "two-pointed ladder" that is sticking up "toward heaven" as he picks and picks and picks. Yet just as the harvest season serves as a metaphor for his own mortality, his act of sorting (some apples for the cellar to keep and others, the fallen, for the "cider-apple heap / As of no worth" – even if they are "not bruised, or spiked with stubble") places him as a somewhat conflicted god.
|Paul Ranson, 1902
The blond assassin [frost that kills the flowers] passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God. (F1668)
He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
He stuns you by degrees (F77)
Essential oils are wrung:But while the soul's ultimate ripeness is "A Solemn thing" as it senses its time is near and hears other beings make that long "drop," this interactive maturation is "Wonderful." An individual might feel she is ripe, but the master orchardist might think otherwise: perhaps she needs some extra sunshine, some new experience – good or bad – to bring a bit of redness to her cheek.
The attar from the rose
Is not expressed by suns alone,
It is the gift of screws. (F772)
I like the rather transgressive aspect of the sun moving the stem aside to peek at the "core" of the soul. Dickinson must have liked it too, for it is part of the "wonderful" stanza. It doesn't sound so very wonderful to me, but my core is nowhere near as forged as Dickinson's. She must have wanted, on some deep level, an appropriate and appreciative audience, someone to truly see her.
The last stanza brings us the most solemn thing, which is to know that every day brings us closer to ripe falling – for fall we will – and that every day is the single last day for some lives. That is indeed a most solemn thing. The tactile sense of hearing them drop is eerie, fascinating, and chilling all at once. One wonders if, as in Frost's poem, they are headed for the cider heap, or if Dickinson is suggesting that the ripeness is all and after that ... the fruit simply falls.