I was surprised to find that I really liked this poem – I tend to think of Rossetti’s poems as just blank lessons in morality with little humanity or interest or depth. This poem makes me wonder if I’ve misjudged her. Composed with the ring of an allegorical fable, An Apple-Gathering appears deceptively simple. Apart from the beautiful rural images, the poem gets its appeal from the fact that the vehicles and tenors that in a typical fable are fixed to each other, here are scrambled and seem to shift places. Consequently the basic pattern of cause and consequence that is intimated at the start is blurred and temporarily suspended. In the end the poem seems to reflect on simple misfortune, on relationships that turn bitter for no obvious reason, and the impossibility of morally accounting for the things that happen to us.
The significance of the apple in the poem comes in part from associations with the Garden of Eden. The suggestion in stanza 2 that the speaker ‘plucked’ too soon implies indulgence in earthly pleasures, such that the ordained pleasures of the ‘due season’ are cut off. Thus ‘Plump Gertrude’ gains a ‘stronger hand’ – presumably a husband – at the appropriate picking season. The Lilians near ‘their mothers’ home’ with the fresh apples – on the way to becoming mothers themselves. Meanwhile the speaker, with premature carnal knowledge is left empty-handed. A reading such as this means Rossetti is allegorizing some kind of Tess of the D’Urbervilles situation – an unchaste girl who consequently loses the chance to marry, and is ostracised – literally left out in the cold. However, a reading like this, while undoubtably implied, needs to ignore half the signals in the poem in order to be accepted fully.
First the speaker doesn’t pick the fruit but the blossom – curtailing any attempt at a parallel with Adam and Eve. In fact she shuns apples, counting them ‘Of far less worth than love’. All this suggests a rejection of the carnal and earthly in favor of the abstract and the pure. Meanwhile the country girls with a good harvest come from the rosy-cheeked, naive rural girl – whose redness harmonizes and connects her with the sunset and the apples to suggest a far more sensuous, carnal nature than that which characterizes the speaker. If their harvests are allegory for fruitful and loving relationships, then these relationships seem little different from the speaker’s lost romance with ‘Willie’ – the difference is simply a temporal one. Luck seems to be the determining factor – the neighbors picked in ‘due season’, while the speaker got it wrong.
The picture is blurred further by the fifth stanza’s exhortation – where the apples become a symbol of temptation, but for the male lover rather than speaker. The tone becomes one of reproach, as ‘Willie’ abandons his love for the harvest – yet the innocence of the harvest scene and the speaker’s clear attraction to it make this apportioning of blame unsatisfactory. The tone of the poem breaks away from the fable style in this stanza, and the final two with their introspection and lack of resolution clearly efface the conventional moral ending. That which the apples symbolise is undefinable – they are universally attractive but whether as a reward or temptation is unclear. Nor can we define a pattern governing who receives and who doesn’t. Thus the poem can be said to be not only about the inscrutability of fortune but also the inadequacy of allegory, metaphor and by extension all language.
What is that makes the enjambement to the final line feel so devastating I’m not sure. This stark unpunctuated line and the ‘falling’ of the dew somehow suggests collapse – a collapse of a relationship or of a moral system. The repeated loitering – as all repetitions do – literally prolongs that state over the period of time spent between them and suggests an unending isolation. Those two mournful last lines are all the more painful for the sensuous rural imagery against which they strike – the voices in the darkening lane, apple pickers in ‘ones and twos / And groups’. The verb ‘stooped’ catches in a word ‘Willie’s potentially condescending attitude to the speaker. It’s as if he is picking her up like a fallen apple. The poems of Rossetti that I find irritating, such as ‘Up-Hill’, provide dull answers to questions that nobody would ask. This poem in forcing us to ask questions with no answer strikes me as infinitely more interesting.