‘An Apple Gathering’ by Christina Rossetti is a seven stanza poem that was written in 1857 and later published in Goblin Market and Other Poems in 1862. The text is separated into sets of four lines, also known as quatrains. The first three lines of each stanza are structured in the form of iambic pentameter. This means that they contain five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed. The pattern changes in the fourth line of each stanza. Here, there are only three sets of beats, known as iambic trimeter.
Due to the fewer syllables, the fourth lines of each stanza are notable shorter than the rest. They are also indented in the farthest, giving them even greater importance in the text. Rossetti wanted to draw a reader’s attention to these moments, more than any of the others.
By the time a reader gets a few stanzas in ‘An Apple Gathering’ it becomes clear that the speaker’s tone is going to be quite solemn. The stanzas are filled with images of regret and even hopelessness that center around the dominant images of the pink flowers and the apple. The flowers quickly come to represent temptation, and the apples’ prosperity and hope.
Summary of An Apple Gathering
The poem begins with the speaker describing how she chose to pick the pink flowers from her apple tree. This choice changed the course of her life. Rather than wait for marriage and gather her apples when they are ripe, she engaged in a sexual relationship with a man who did not love her.
When she returns to the tree and there are no apples to harvest, she falls into a deep depression. She realizes that the prospect of her having a good life is virtually zero. The speaker returns down the path she traveled and becomes more dejected and overwhelmed as she passes others with full baskets.
Analysis of An Apple Gathering
I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple-tree
And wore them all that evening in my hair:
Then in due season when I went to see
I found no apples there.
In the first stanza of ‘An Apple Gathering’, the speaker begins by describing her plucking of “pink blossoms” from her own apple-tree. This first line of the text is filled with alliteration, the ‘p’ and ‘b’ sounds relate directly to the experience of pulling flowers from their branches.
A period of time passes after she takes these flowers. When the speaker returns to her apple tree she finds that there are “no apples there.” This is a direct result of the picking of flowers she did earlier. She has indulged herself too early and is now going to suffer from it. As the lines progress it becomes clear that the metaphor Rossetti crafted revolves around a young woman’s loss of virginity and the way society makes her suffer for it.
After picking the flowers she “wore them all evening” in her hair. This line suggests that the speaker was not upset by whatever sexual relationship she engaged in. Instead, she was proud of her decision and felt free enough to let the world know what had happened.
With dangling basket all along the grass
As I had come I went the selfsame track:
My neighbours mocked me while they saw me pass
So empty-handed back.
Whatever pride the speaker felt in her previous sexual experiences has faded. She was not able to pick any apples from her tree and is forced to return the way she came. The apples quickly come to represent societal success, acceptance, and the fruit of a good marriage. These are things that are now denied to the speaker, all due to her decision to pick the pink flowers before the apples were ready.
The speaker returns to the “track” she began down and everyone she passes mocks her. She is “So empty-handed” and the details of her situation are clear to any who see her.
Lilian and Lilias smiled in trudging by,
Their heaped-up basket teased me like a jeer;
Sweet-voiced they sang beneath the sunset sky,
Their mother’s home was near.
In the third stanza of ‘An Apple Gathering’, the speaker passes “Lilian and Lilias.” They are other women she knows and they were able to gather a huge number of apples. Their basket is “heaped-up” and seems to mock the speaker with its fullness. The many apples tell of the women’s successfully established future and their own chastity. The two are on their way back to their “mother’s home.” The path they travel on is not a long one, soon they’ll be safe within familiar confines with their basket of apples between them.
The seemingly carefree nature of these two women is contrasted with the speaker’s own disappointment and fear for the future. Lilian and Lilias sing as they walk, under a sky colored by the setting sun. The speaker sees now what her life could’ve been had she not chosen to have relations before marriage.
Plump Gertrude passed me with her basket full,
A stronger hand than hers helped it along;
A voice talked with her through the shadows cool
More sweet to me than song.
The speaker also passes “Plump Gertrude” whose basked is just as full as Lilian and Lilias’. Alongside this woman walks another whose hand is strong. This alludes to Gertrude already having found a husband who can take care of her. She has the love, or at least protection, that the speaker will go without.
At this moment she is extremely jealous of the dynamic between the two and the clear direction of Gertrude’s life. Her path is clear and illuminated by the voice of her husband.
Ah Willie, Willie, was my love less worth
Than apples with their green leaves piled above?
I counted rosiest apples on the earth
Of far less worth than love.
Finally, the speaker reveals the intended listener of ‘An Apple Gathering’. The lines of stanza five are directed at Willie, the speaker’s lover. She asks him if her love or her virginity was really worth so little to him. The question is directed at him, but also at herself. She wonders over her choice to give away her love rather than collect her own basket of apples.
So once it was with me you stooped to talk
Laughing and listening in this very lane:
To think that by this way we used to walk
We shall not walk again!
The sixth stanza is also directed at her lover. She remembers how the two came to be together. It required that he “stoop” to talk to her. He leaned down, perhaps physically and metaphorically, and talked and laughed. Although it is not explicitly stated, her description of him as taller than she is might also refer to his standing in society.
No matter his social position, it is clear that he is unbothered by what has become of her life. He does not face the consequences that she does. The speaker is very clear about what has passed and will pass between them. She knows he does not care for her and even if he did, they “shall not walk” on the same path again. This speaks to her own inability to change what happened. She’ll never travel to the apple tree, empty basket in hand ready to collect apples, again. No matter what she does, the apples will not be hers.
I let my neighbours pass me, ones and twos
And groups; the latest said the night grew chill,
And hastened: but I loitered, while the dews
Fell fast I loitered still.
In the final stanza of ‘An Apple Gathering’, Rossetti ends her speaker’s narrative on a dark and depressing note. She has grown slow in her progress up the path, allowing “neighbours” to pass her by. They travel in groups, talking with one another, adding to her own feelings of dejection. She is alone in her journey and no one is willing to stop and help her.
It does not matter to her that the night is growing cold. She stays on the path, slowing down, even more, caught up in the falling dew. At the end of the text, the speaker is still on the path, unsure of what to do or where to go. Or even if there is a point to her continuing on at all.