It was one of those perfect autumn weekends, when you think warm days will never cease, to quote Keats. Light and sunny, but with a sharpness to the air, an early frost on the grass. And yes, mists over the river. We had gathered at Mendham Mill, on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk, to talk about the theme of harvest in poetry, and the apple as metaphor for all sorts of things …
There is sin, of course (‘the sacred fruit forbidden’, as Milton had it) and desire: the apple being likened to the breasts in Tasso and Spenser, in early 20th century American slang, to a woman’s sex. There is good health: (‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’) many legends feature apples which guarantee immortality; one of Hercules’s labours was to steal the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, in Norse mythology, Loki nicks the apples which are meant to keep the Gods young and the Gods immediately wither and age. There is beauty: the Anglo-Saxon word “aeppel” meant both “eye” and “apple”, both the beholder and what is beheld. There is this world and the next: the roundness of the apple like a globe, high on a branch pointing ‘toward heaven still’.
So we talked, and tasted. The Tydeman’s Late Orange had a sweetness that stuck to the teeth like cotton candy, but the Worcester Pearmain had a tarter finish. The Suffolk Pink was light and fresh, the Laxton Superb had very white flesh. We tried them with cheese that crumbled in our fingers, and washed it all down with Aspall’s cider. And we walked; through the village of Metfield, into the fields beyond, obeying Thoreau’s dictum on the best way to enjoy wild apples:
“These apples have hung in the wind and frost and rain till they have absorbed the qualities of the weather or season, and thus are highly seasoned, and they pierce and sting and permeate us with their spirit. They must be eaten in season, accordingly,–that is, out-of-doors … To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air. The out-door air and exercise which the walker gets give a different tone to his palate, and he craves a fruit which the sedentary would call harsh and crabbed. They must be eaten in the fields, when your system is all aglow with exercise, when the frosty weather nips your fingers, the wind rattles the bare boughs or rustles the few remaining leaves, and the jay is heard screaming around. What is sour in the house a bracing walk makes sweet. Some of these apples might be labelled, ‘To be eaten in the wind’.”
We ended up on Wakelyn’s Farm, where we found ancient varieties, as if we’d stumbled onto a garden out of another time: the Leathercoat Russett, around since 1500; Shakespeare might have bitten into one when he was writing ‘How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow’ (although probably not; it’s twisted and brown, certainly too ugly for the shelves of Tesco’s). Or the Coeur De Boeuf, blood-red, nearly black on the tree, and first cultivated in 1200. The apple of the Troubadours.
And we read poems. The one that stays with me is Frost’s, so beautiful and strange. The orchard as a ladder to heaven, and dream:
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
Photo courtesy of Rachel Kellett. Her account of the Apple Walk here:
And thanks to Rochelle Scholar: