An Apple Gathering

Overview
We start with a poem about fertility and feminine fulfillment with the apple orchard serving as an analogy: reaping the fruit representing marriage and motherhood. Rossetti talks of visiting the orchard as it blooms, in her youthful adolescence, but when she actually wants a bloody apple they’ve all gone! She’s pretty miserable and jealous of those with baskets full of apples and shows a desperation by staying in the orchard in the hope of some sort of apple-y miracle.
Stanzas 1-4Stanzas 5-7

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.

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.

Lilian and Lilias smiled in trudging by,
     Their heaped-up basket teazed me like a jeer;
Sweet-voiced they sang beneath the sunset sky,
          Their mother’s home was near.

Plump Gertrude passed me with her basket full,
     A stronger hand than hers helped it along;
A voice talked with her thro’ the shadows cool
          More sweet to me than song. 

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.

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!

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.

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Composed in 1857 and published in Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), this poem is written at a time when Rossetti has lost her first love, James Collinson, after his flitting between Catholicism and Anglicanism left them with irreconcilable differences.

Don’t accept for a second that Rossetti’s poems are all biographical, but we have to acknowledge that for a poet to create a piece of work so deeply emotional, they must have had personal inspiration to feed their ideas. While I don’t always find Rossetti’s poems to address aspects of her personal life, I think this can easily be seen as doing so in some respects. However, her personal experiences are mixed in with the fate of a fallen woman – someone who is deemed unworthy by society usually as a result of sexual promiscuity outside of marriage – which is a common theme and something Rossetti is clearly passionate about in her life – restoring the fallen.

 Themes

The main theme here is gender and the role of women in the world – she explores the frustration of not being able to realise the role of wife and mother. If you see this as not being biographical then you could see this as being about a ‘fallen’ woman who has been left undesirable after enjoying sexual relations out of wedlock – in a similar way to Maude Clare and Cousin Kate. There could also be a link to religion here in that she could be interpreted as seeing her earlier sinning as the cause of her current misfortune.

Content

We open with a confession that Rossetti has enjoyed herself in the apple orchard before the fruit was ripe. Picking the blossoms should be seen her as enjoying some sort of romantic relationship or love, but clearly she feels she has experienced this before she was ready.

Now if we don’t read this as being biographical then we could associate this with a girl who has had a bit of a roll in the grass with some chappy outside of wedlock. In which case she is unable to gather her apples now, when she wants them, due to social stigma associated with non-virgin bride wannabes. Don’t imagine she is talking about underage sex, Victorian society was extremely prudish and sex outside of marriage would have been enough to regard someone as being unready.

If you prefer to see it as biographical and see this as focusing on her experience of innocent love and affection. She finds love before she is ready for it and then feels like she will never find it again. If she was 27 when she wrote this, she would be old by Victorian standards to be still looking for a husband and to settle down.

Whoever this woman is, she feels like others are laughing at her misfortune as she walks along empty handed. She laments their happiness and the fact that these couples also appear to be pregnant. It seems that the final couple she feels envious of is made up of one ‘plump Gertrude’ and our poetic voice’s ‘Ah Willie’, presumably her former love. Her misery comes from the fact that she feels she was just as worthy as Gertrude and could offer just as much.

The final stanza sees her being passed by all and sundry, but she remains in the orchard as night falls hoping for some coupling of her own. The end of the day should here signify life and she feels like she will be waiting, desperate, all her life for love and fulfillment to come along.

Language and techniques

Let’s start with the apple tree. It can be seen as a symbol in two ways. Firstly, if we are thinking about a ‘fallen’ woman then the apple being ‘plucked’ before ‘due season’ can be compared with Eve’s scrumping in the Garden of Eden. Thus she has given in to temptation and as a result been barred from paradise. Through comparison the poetic voice wouldn’t be barred from heaven necessarily, but she feels her reputation has been tainted and prevents men from wanting to marry her and settle down.

Secondly, think about the apple as representing fertility. She found love when the tree was in ‘pink blossom’, which implies youthful beauty, but perhaps a sense of not yet being ready with no fruit on the branches. Her youthful love has been celebrated as these blossoms were worn ‘all that evening in my hair’. When she wants to experience the joys of motherhood, however, there are ‘no apples there’ meaning she has no chance as her only love affair has come to an end. You can sense her desire to experience motherhood as she looks at others with ‘their heaped-up basket’ and others with ‘basket full’ and considers them to have ‘teazed’ her – others possessing what she wants feels like an insult and jab at her.

I’d also focus specifically on how Rossetti uses language to convey a sense of worthlessness associated with not achieving womanly fulfillment. The other people referred to in the poem ‘mocked her’, the basket ‘teazed [her] with a jeer’, while she can’t understand why her former love found another more worthy when she says ‘was my love less worth…?’ You can interpret this in two ways: (1) society looks down at her and scorns her for her youthful folly of getting jigging with it without a ring on her finger; (2) she feels personally ashamed and just feels like others are judging her even if they are not actually paying her any direct attention. We all know this second feeling, which is usually baseless, but difficult to dismiss.

Let’s have a look at these people who she perceives are laughing at her. First of all we have her ‘neighbours’ and there is an implication within this that they are her peers and more similar than alike, but yet they are celebrating her misfortune: is this a comment on Victorian values and particularly lack of sisterhood amongst Victorian women? Potentially.

However, the next people are named. Lilian and Lilias (nice that their names make up a set, like my parents: Jan and John), but why has Rossetti chosen these names? Both stem from the word lily, which we’ve explored before here is used as a symbol for birth and potentially also for innocence. So our poetic voice is both jealous of their ability to begin a family and the innocence that they have retained allowing them to attain marriage.

I’m not so sure about Gertrude. The only famous Gertrude I am aware of is Hamlet’s mother, and this could potentially be a link as Rossetti’s voice in the poem might want to imply this woman is not as innocent and pure as she may appear and thus should not be seen as above our speaker in terms of worth. If you don’t know Hamlet’s mother is a little strumpet who was probably having it off with her husband’s brother before her fella was killed and married him afterwards. It does sound like a plausible link, but it is difficult to tell if this is just my overactive imagination.

As for our poetic voice’s former lover, Willie, I will leave you to consider any significance in the choice of name. If you want to be dirty, then fine, but I’m not sure Rossetti would approve!

Mention the rhetorical question used her that stresses how frustrated she feels by being abandoned in favour of another. She also talks about how the ‘rosiest apples’, which I’d take as the most innocent and attractive virgins, are of ‘far less worth than love’ demonstrating her frustration that her sin counts against her (even though presumably it was with Willie! Hypocrisy!) even though she would be a better wife and love him more dearly than this other strumpet.

Almost done now!

I’d also mention the definitive ‘we shall not walk again!’ that implies that Rossetti/the poetic voice feels that she is destitute and will not achieve the happiness and love she wants. However, perhaps contrast this sense of definitive misery with the hope that seems hopeless with the fact she ‘loitered’ as the day faded in the apple orchard. She repeats this twice and this shows how desperation she is for fulfillment and some change to her circumstances.

Structure

I feel the regularity of the stanza structure and the rhyme scheme (ABAB) reflects the sense of misery and permanence that our speaker feels about her current situation. The simplicity of the rhyming words and in fact pretty much the whole poem mirrors the innocence of our speaker, who has strained through youthful naiviety rather than through being a terrible person or sinner.

Tone

Melancholy as she contemplates what could have been, but seems lost in a sense that her misery, loneliness, the stigma against her and her lack of fulfillment as a woman will be permanent.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

7 thoughts on “An Apple Gathering”

  1. Hello there! Umm…I would like to make a small suggestion here for that bit concerning Willie as to why she might have chosen this name. Since apparently we can’t find a rather clean and more appropriate interpretation for it:p

    It can be connected from her personal life as according to Lona Mosk Packer, Rossetti’s poems coceal a love for the painter William Bell Scott. Source for this piece of info is the Victorian Web. Moreover in another example answer essay checked by the examiner i came across these lines, “Rossetti did have an affair with a Scottish painter called William Bell Scott and according to many critics; it is known that Rossetti referred William in many of her poems.” This was marked correct by the examiner.

    Therefore Rossetti might be talking about William using Willie as a pet name. Although the evidence may not be very strong however this piece of contexual information can be used for an alternative explanation for the ‘Willie bit’.
    Thanks:D

    1. Sorry, sorry, sorry – missed it!

      Ah, some good digging, Tehreem!

      I’m not sure you need to know this or discuss the relevance of it, but it certainly sounds plausible that she fancied this painter. However, I like to think Rossetti is true to her word and wouldn’t be off having affairs, particularly with Scotsmen! If you have a link to the article by Lona Mosk Packer I’d be grateful so anyone can check it out. She appears to be a recognised Rossetti expert.

      As for the examiner marking the comment correct, I wouldn’t read too much into that as I doubt there are many (or any) exam markers with that strong a knowledge of Rossetti’s life. Remember they are more interested in the analysis of the text than purely biographical details, so it is likely the essay you mentioned was making a pertinent point about the poem, which the examiner was recognising.

      Thanks,

      Mr Sir

  2. Hi, I wanted to ask you if you had any such analysis material on Auden. I have my exam in a few days and I would be really thankful if you could help me out since I cant find anything useful on the internet for it. Also, this stuff on Rossetti is very helpful. Thank you so much!

    1. Sorry, I’m not going to be covering Auden – I didn’t know he was one of the options to study, to be honest. Good luck with your exam!

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