Mending Wall Robert Frost’s Poem Summary & Analysis

Mending Wall Robert Frost’s Poem Summary & Analysis

The poem

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
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,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the 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.
I let my neighbor 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.
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!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side.  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.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors?  Isn’t it
Where there are cows?  But here there are no cows.
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.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’  I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.  I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
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.’

Summary

Every year, two neighbors meet to repair the stone wall that divides their property. The narrator is skeptical of this tradition, unable to understand the need for a wall when there is no livestock to be contained on the property, only apples and pine trees.

He does not believe that a wall should exist simply for the sake of existing. Moreover, he cannot help but notice that the natural world seems to dislike the wall as much as he does: mysterious gaps appear, boulders fall for no reason.

The neighbor, on the other hand, asserts that the wall is crucial to maintaining their relationship, asserting, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Over the course of the mending, the narrator attempts to convince his neighbor otherwise and accuses him of being old-fashioned for maintaining the tradition so strictly. No matter what the narrator says, though, the neighbor stands his ground, repeating only: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

 

Analysis

This poem is the first work in Frost’s second book of poetry, “North of Boston,” which was published upon his return from England in 1915. While living in England with his family, Frost was exceptionally homesick for the farm in New Hampshire where he had lived with his wife from 1900 to 1909. Despite the eventual failure of the farm, Frost associated his time in New Hampshire with a peaceful, rural sensibility that he instilled in the majority of his subsequent poems.

“Mending Wall” is autobiographical on an even more specific level: a French-Canadian named Napoleon Guay had been Frost’s neighbor in New Hampshire, and the two had often walked along their property line and repaired the wall that separated their land. Ironically, the most famous line of the poem (“Good fences make good neighbors”) was not invented by Frost himself, but was rather a phrase that Guay frequently declared to Frost during their walks. This particular adage was a popular colonial proverb in the middle of the 17th century, but variations of it also appeared in Norway (“There must be a fence between good neighbors”), Germany (“Between neighbor’s gardens a fence is good”), Japan (“Build a fence even between intimate friends”), and even India (“Love your neighbor, but do not throw down the dividing wall”).

In terms of form, “Mending Wall” is not structured with stanzas; it is a simple forty-five lines of first-person narrative. Frost does maintain iambic stresses, but he is flexible with the form in order to maintain the conversational feel of the poem. He also shies away from any obvious rhyme patterns and instead relies upon the occasional internal rhyme and the use of assonance in certain ending terms (such as “wall,” “hill,” “balls,” “well”).

In the poem itself, Frost creates two distinct characters who have different ideas about what exactly makes a person a good neighbor. The narrator deplores his neighbor’s preoccupation with repairing the wall; he views it as old-fashioned and even archaic. After all, he quips, his apples are not going to invade the property of his neighbor’s pinecones. Moreover, within a land of such of such freedom and discovery, the narrator asks, are such borders necessary to maintain relationships between people? Despite the narrator’s skeptical view of the wall, the neighbor maintains his seemingly “old-fashioned” mentality, responding to each of the narrator’s disgruntled questions and rationalizations with nothing more than the adage: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

As the narrator points out, the very act of mending the wall seems to be in opposition to nature. Every year, stones are dislodged and gaps suddenly appear, all without explanation. Every year, the two neighbors fill the gaps and replace the fallen boulders, only to have parts of the wall fall over again in the coming months. It seems as if nature is attempting to destroy the barriers that man has created on the land, even as man continues to repair the barriers, simply out of habit and tradition.

Ironically, while the narrator seems to begrudge the annual repairing of the wall, Frost subtly points out that the narrator is actually more active than the neighbor. It is the narrator who selects the day for mending and informs his neighbor across the property. Moreover, the narrator himself walks along the wall at other points during the year in order to repair the damage that has been done by local hunters. Despite his skeptical attitude, it seems that the narrator is even more tied to the tradition of wall-mending than his neighbor. Perhaps his skeptical questions and quips can then be read as an attempt to justify his own behavior to himself. While he chooses to present himself as a modern man, far beyond old-fashioned traditions, the narrator is really no different from his neighbor: he too clings to the concept of property and division, of ownership and individuality.

Ultimately, the presence of the wall between the properties does ensure a quality relationship between the two neighbors. By maintaining the division between the properties, the narrator and his neighbor are able to maintain their individuality and personal identity as farmers: one of apple trees, and one of pine trees. Moreover, the annual act of mending the wall also provides an opportunity for the two men to interact and communicate with each other, an event that might not otherwise occur in an isolated rural environment. The act of meeting to repair the wall allows the two men to develop their relationship and the overall community far more than if each maintained their isolation on separate properties.

Themes

One of the central themes of this poem is the difficulty of changing social conventions and traditions. The wall can be seen to symbolize an activity that is unquestionably undertaken, and the neighbor’s unsatisfying response to the speaker’s logic illustrates how stubborn people are to challenge these activities.

One of the central theme of “Mending Wall” is whether it is wise to erect walls and other types of barriers. At first glance, the poem seems to suggest that walls stand as obstacles to progress and social concord. Tear them down, as does the mysterious “something” of lines 1 and 36, and you open the way for communication, friendship, and unity. The destruction of the infamous Berlin Wall demonstrates the wisdom of this viewpoint.

 

Other themes

  • The theme of this poem is that a respectful distance between neighbours is the recipe for harmonious relationships:
    ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
  • The theme of this poem is a farmer’s pride in the wisdom passed down to him by his father:
    ‘He will not go behind his father’s saying’.
  • The poet portrays an unusual and dour country character:
    ‘like an old-stone savage armed he moves in darkness’.
  • The theme of this poem is co-operation between neighbours:
    ‘I let my neighbour know beyond the hill’.
  • The theme of this poem is that country people need their own space:
    ‘We keep the wall between us as we go’.
  • The poet explores the futility of a country custom:
    ‘Oh, just another kind of outdoor game’.
  • The poet suggests there are mysterious forces at work in nature:
    ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
    That wants it down’.
  • The poet shows the different types of agriculture in his locality:
    ‘He is all pine and I am apple orchard’.
  • The theme is the way some people keep to themselves, no matter what:
    ‘He moves in darkness as it seems to me’.
  • The theme is the mental struggle between two neighbours who appear to co-operate on a physical task while they are very different in outlook:
    ‘There were it is we do not need the wall’.”

Structure/style

  • Blank verse
  • With unrhymed lines in iambic pentameter, a metric scheme with five pairs of syllables per line, each pair containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
  • Frost wrote poetry in the simple language of everyday conversation. Even a child could define most, if not all, of the words in “Mending Wall.” However, when the reader peeks beneath the words, phrases, and sentences, he finds ambiguity and unanswered questions. Why, for example, does the speaker continue to help his neighbor rebuild the wall if he believes that it serves no purpose? As the speaker points out, “My apples trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines . . . ” (lines 25-26).

Literary Devices   

It contains common Shakespearean device, inversion (or anastrophe), in what is perhaps the most memorable line in the poem: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” (Ordinarily, one would write or say, “There is something that doesn’t love a wall.)

In lines 17-19, Frost uses metaphor, personification, and hyperbole.

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!”

A metaphor compares the stone blocks to loaves and balls. A metaphor-hyperbole compares the method of placing the rocks to a spell. A personification (quoted sentence) treats the blocks as persons.
…….In lines 32 and 33, Frost uses alliteration:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out.

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