Mending Wall by Robert Frost: About the poem
Mending Wall is a dramatic-narrative poem by Robert Frost, a popular American poet. This poem is the first work in Frost’s second book of poetry, North of Boston (1915). Through this poem, he has tried to explore the way people isolate themselves physically and emotionally by building barriers like fences to derive a sense of safety.
The poem Mending Wall is believed to be built upon Frost’s relationship with his neighbour a French-Canadian named Napoleon Guay in New Hampshire with, of course, a wider understanding of the issues.
The theme of the poem Mending Wall revolves around the wall dividing the two neighbours’ property. Every year they meet to repair the stone wall after new gaps are found in it. The narrator believed that the wall should not exist at all, for he could not find a real reason for putting up the wall. But the neighbour wanted it to be there as he believed in the old proverb: ‘Good fences make good neighbours’. The speaker also argues that nature does not like such walls between men. That is why the mysterious gaps appear and boulders fall for no reason. But the neighbour won’t pay heed to any reasoning. He simply repeats the age-old adage again and again.
The title of the poem Mending Wall is ambiguous as the word ‘mending’ can be used as a verb and an adjective. When used as a verb, it signifies an act involving the speaker and the neighbour where they mend the wall. But when used as an adjective, “mending” implies a distinguished relationship that the speaker and his neighbour share which they are trying to mend.
Robert Frost is one of the most popular American poet of the twentieth century. He is highly regarded for his realistic depictions of rural village especially settings from his life in rural New England to examine complex, philosophical questions. (Mending Wall is an example). He moved to Britain where he came under the influence of Irish and English writers like Thomas Hardy and W.B. Yeats. He was awarded four Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry in his lifetime and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature for 31 times. His other masterful works include “Home Burial”, “Directive”, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, “The Lovely Shall be Choosers”, “Spring Pools” etc.
Mending Wall: Form and Structure
The poem Mending Wall is composed in blank verse and comprises of balanced iambic stresses. It is in first person narrative and cast in a continuous fashion rather than being divided into stanzas to enhance the informal, conversational tone.
The poem is rife with poetical devices like metaphor, allegory, symbolism, personification etc. giving effect to the poet’s intention of making an elaborate artistic piece.
Mending Wall: Line by Line Analysis
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
The poem starts with an observation that there is something in the nature that doesn’t like walls. In the poem Mending Wall, nature acts as a third character alongside the speaker and his neighbour even though this has not been explicitly mentioned.
The starting line refers to a “something” which opposes creating a wall. By differentiating “something” from “someone”, he marks his stand that those are not humans, but things which are keeping him from building the wall.
The term “wall” here presents an example of metaphor to explain both kinds of barrier – mental and physical.
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
The lines present a powerful image of “something” which causes the cold ground under the wall to swell and burst. The ground bursts in a way that the boulders come spitting out from within to the outside. It merely explains the view of the speaker that something wanted to keep the wall from being constructed so it crumbles from the natural action.
This is a beautiful use of personification of the unseen force of nature. The nature breaks the wall because it does not like it to stay there.
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The speaker further says the crumbling of the wall due to the natural activity makes gaps where the two neighbours can pass through easily.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
The speaker points out that the work of the hunters is another obstacle to the wall between the two neighbours. They cause damage to the wall during their sport and don’t make repair to those damages (not one stone on a stone). The speaker has to make regular repairs as he points it in “I have come after them”.
It may be because the wall restricts the otherwise wider spread of the hunting ground.
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.
The speaker continues to point out the trouble the hunters cause. They don’t even hesitate to tear down the walls to find the rabbits from hiding to please their barking, yelping dogs.
The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
Despite various contributing causes for the wall being torn down the fact remains that nobody knows or hears about how or when the gaps are formed. But the speaker certainly discovers the gaps at the spring mending-time.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
The speaker finally mentions his neighbour. He says he lets his neighbour across the dividing line know about the damages so they can repair them together. One day they meet to go with the whole mending business as they do it every year. The narrator clarifies that they keep the wall in between when they do the mending job.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
The speaker and the neighbour notice the boulders which have fallen to either side. They find that some of these boulders look like loaves of bread, some are round as balls. They anticipate the difficulty in putting them to use and believe that it would need a spell to balance them together so that the boulders stand on one another.
It seems no matter what they do, the boulders fail to stick and fall down. So, out of despair, the neighbours yell at the stones to stay put until they turn their back. They want to confirm that the wall stands intact at least in their presence. This is to indicate how difficult it was to mend the wall on a regular basis.
The poet employs metaphor with “loaves” and “balls” to mark the comparison to boulders. Further, he personifies the “stones” so they could be yelled at.
The use of poetical device Parallelism in the line ‘To each the boulders that have fallen to each’ where “To each” emphasises the fact that the speaker and his neighbour are indeed on the opposite sides of the wall.
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side…
The fingers of the neighbours are rough and callous with the handling of boulders over and over again. They find the task just like another outdoor game with the wall-line demarcating the two opponents playing from across the line.
… It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
This is the first time in the poem ‘Mending Wall’ that the poet brings out the difference in opinion the speaker has with his neighbour to the fore. The speaker says, as opposed to his neighbour, the presence of the wall is plainly unnecessary. He is totally skeptical of the wall especially when there is no movable property under threat of moving into each other’s land. He mentions that they have two different kinds of orchard. The speaker also maintains that his apple trees won’t ever cross to his neighbour’s yard to cause damage to his pine trees. Similarly, his neighbour’s pines are not going to come and disturb his lot. Hence, putting up a wall is a futile exercise.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
The neighbour does not pay heed to the arguments the speaker puts. He only maintains “Good fences make good neighbours”. The phrase “Good fences make good neighbours” has been around for centuries in different words and formations. But it was Frost who framed the popular phrase to reiterate the old wisdom.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
When spring arrives, our speaker becomes a bit mischievous in his attempts to convince his neighbour to rethink his decision of putting up the wall and mending it when the gaps are visible.
In the coming lines the speaker tries to convince his neighbour the other way and nearly accuses him of being a believer of antiquated, old traditions.
‘Why do they make good neighbors?
Isn’t it Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Continuing with the same pace and tone, the narrator asks why the walls can make good neighbours. He seeks his neighbour’s reasoning for putting up the wall – a purpose. He argues that walls are needed when there are cows that are needed to be kept from the neighbour’s premises. But, since here there are no cows and only trees, there is no need for a wall in between.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
The speaker continues to argue his stand and says every time he builds the wall he’d ask to know what was he walling in or walling out. He always asked what was being separated and what was being brought together with the wall that they were constructing. He also asked whether this wall would offend anyone.
The poet uses an alliteration in ‘What I was walling in or walling out’ to powerfully express the speaker’s concern. Moreover, there seems to be a clever use of pun through “offense” which sounds like ‘a fence’.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.
The poet yet again points out that there is something that doesn’t love a wall, and wants it to go down. It invokes a sense of mystery in the minds of the readers about this “something”.
I could say, “Elves” to him
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.
The speaker is desperate to find ways to convince his neighbour otherwise. He says that he could point towards elves as the reason for bringing down the wall. But he knows it is not really the elves. So he suggests that the neighbour should come up with a reason for the same on his own.
Here, the poet makes an allusion to elves. The elves are tiny, mythical, supernatural beings from folklore.
I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
Despite all his efforts and hopes and dreams of turning the neighbour around, the speaker sees that the neighbour is bringing stones grasped firmly by the top in each of his hands. He looked like an armed old-stone savage, totally unaffected by the speaker’s intentions and desires.
With the use of ‘like’, the poet uses simile to compare the appearance of the neighbour with an armed old-stone savage. This is also symbolic in suggesting that the neighbour’s thoughts and ideas were archaic.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
The speaker now firmly believes that the neighbour is living in darkness. Not just the darkness due to woods and tree-shades. The speaker feels that the neighbour is under the tight-grip of darkness of ignorance.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The speaker says that his neighbour is unwilling to compromise his hereditary wealth. He is unwilling to go beyond something his father used to say. He probably likes how well he can remember it. The neighbour stands his ground and utters again “Good fences make good neighbours”.
Mending Wall: Different Interpretations
In the poem Mending Wall, the poet Robert Frost takes an ordinary setting of two neighbours and their efforts to mend the wall to deliver something more significant. The wall, the dispute, the different philosophies of the two neighbours — all these may hold more significance than it seems.
- Through the fence, the poet tries to show how we create barriers to isolate ourselves from the outer world.
- Through the dispute between the neighbours, he brings to the forefront the frequent clash of tradition and modernity where youth is trying to tear down the ideals of tradition and old is willing to do just about anything to cling to these existing tradition and beliefs.
While the narrator’s philosophy about ‘something’ presents the theory that nature does not like a wall between people, it may even indicate that this ‘something’ is in human nature, in our mind too. So the narrator attacks the neighbour using the word ‘savage’ as he wants to shy away from others around him.
The poet makes a distinct use of Paradox by juxtaposing two opposing instances and opinions by repeating the contrasting lines ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ and ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Ironical enough, the poem Mending Wall also ends with the neighbour’s ideal regarding ‘good fences’. May be, the poet wants to suggest that this adage holds more sense than the speaker realizes. So, the verbal paradox may be reflective of a thematic one within it.
As we can see, the wall, on one hand, separates the two neighbours, and on the other hand, brings them together every year when they have to undertake the mending of the wall. So, the activity of mending the wall enables it to be a “mending wall” that keeps the relationship of these two neighbors stable and peaceful.