In Robert Frost’s 1914 poem, “Mending Wall” the speaker talks about a stone wall that runs between his and his neighbor’s property. He describes how each spring the men meet and walk the wall together, each on their own side, replacing the fallen stones and repairing the wall. The speaker muses on the reason for the wall, wondering why it is there at all since there are only pine trees on the neighbor’s side, apple trees on his. In the speaker’s view, walls should not exist just to be a wall. The neighbor counters with the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The speaker challenges his neighbor’s old-fashioned thinking light-heartedly, asking if that doesn’t only pertain to cows being present, of which neither neighbor has. However, his neighbor holds his view, repeating the old adage. Frost’s poem can best be further examined by applying eight different topics: symbols, point of view, theme, setting, portrayal of women, children, or minorities, irony, rhythm and meter, and conflict.
The main subject of the poem is the wall, then the neighbors themselves, the hunters and their dogs, the pine and apple trees, and finally the unseen forces of weather and earth that destroy the wall. Symbolism can be found in all of these things. Symbolism of the main subject of the poem, the wall, is seen most clearly in the heart of the poem. In practical terms, the stone wall is a dividing line between properties that separates each neighbor’s doings, confines each to their own land, and marks boundary lines. Figuratively, the wall is a symbol that helps to develop the theme of personal barrier-building and societal segregation. The wall also serves as a symbol to help in showing the neighbor’s character and way of thinking as being old-fashioned. For the speaker, the wall is the symbol of conflict. The hunters and their dogs seem to symbolize the annoyances and small disagreements that can occur between neighbors, barreling through the wall without regard for it. The pine trees of the neighbor and apple trees of the speaker perhaps symbolize the individual ways of each neighbor’s lifestyles, different from one another, but not a threat to each other. The trees could also symbolize each man’s emotions. The neighbor fears an entanglement of the tree’s roots, ie. an entanglement of their emotions. The unseen forces of weather and earth the speaker talks of symbolize outside influences on both their lives, influences and actions made by society or government at large that the neighbor’s are unaware of, influences that they cannot change.
For some, Frost’s poem symbolizes something much further-reaching. Some readers interpret “Mending Wall” as speaking symbolically of the issue of national walls, or barriers, and if national walls should be made stronger to protect the citizens within or if the walls should be eradicated completely to promote the progress of understanding across cultures. (GradeSaver Editors) For yet other readers, the symbology in “Mending Wall” speaks of the opposing spirits of revolution and tradition, with the speaker symbolizing the spirit of revolt and the neighbor the spirit of tradition and restraint. (GradeSaver Editors)
Point of View:
The poem is narrated by a speaker who can be characterized as philosophical, good-natured, and unconvinced. Philosophical because of his musings regarding the wall, the hunters and their dogs, and the unseen forces of the earth that work against the wall. The speaker uses figurative language and diction such as when he says, “spring is the mischief in [him]” (line 28). (Sparknotes Editors) The speaker’s good-natured character is evident in the friendly manner he converses with his neighbor, even as he proposes an objectionable point-of-view. The speaker is not pushy but playful even, simply introducing the idea and allowing the neighbor his opinion. The neighbor’s reason for keeping the wall is unconvincing to the speaker. The tone of the speaker implies a desire for change and a wish to take the wall down for good.
The theme of “Mending Wall” revolves around the propensity of humans to build walls around themselves, their families, their lifestyles, states, and countries that keep others out and from getting close enough to develop real emotional attachment. Humans put a wall around themselves to prevent pain and hurt, however still retain a desire to reach out to people and make a social connection. It is man’s contradictory nature and the paradox of people that lies at the heart of Frost’s poem. (GradeSaver Editors)
The setting of the poem is a countryside one. Since “Mending Wall” is the first poem that appears in Frost’s collection, North of Boston, we can perhaps assume it is a northeastern United States countryside. (Bartleby.com)This setting would be one of mild isolation for both the speaker and his neighbor, with houses far apart and visits between neighbors few between. It evokes a contemplative feel for the poem.
Portrayal of Women, Children, Minorities:
There are no women or children mentioned in the poem. The speaker mentions the neighbor’s father, an elder that could be seen as a minority. Mentioning the neighbor’s father serves to show both the out-datedness of the idea that “fences make good neighbor’s” and the ritual of the task.
Irony as a device is clearly recognizable in Frost’s poem. It is seen in the tone of humorous remarks the speaker makes throughout the poem, but it is also the main topic of the poem in a way. “Mending Wall” directly addresses the irony of how the speaker and his neighbor repeatedly rebuild the wall each spring, though they know it will be broken down from summer to winter. They proceed, despite the pointlessness of the act. “Mending Wall” is one of Frost’s most quoted poems and its strength comes from its ironic contradiction. (GradeSaver Editors)Two famous lines of the poem stand in contradiction to one another. The speaker maintains that:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
But the neighbor insists:
“Good fences make good neighbours.”
This is a logical contradiction, since the opposing statements are made by two types of people with two different points-of-view and both are arguably right. Humans must have walls, boundaries, limits, and self-specific limitations to live. The irony of this, is that even as humans need them they resent anything that binds and holds them, rejoicing in the downfall of barriers. The speaker determines it is useless to have a boundary line between properties:
“There where it is we do not need the wall.”
To emphasize the uselessness of the wall, the speaker adds:
“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.”
Rhythm and Meter:
Robert Frost used structure and form in his poetry to aid in delivering the message of the poem. In “Mending Wall” blank verse is the baseline meter, but Frost takes liberty with the form mostly disregarding the lock-step iambs. Instead, he maintains five stressed syllables per line, using extensive variation on the feet to maintain the natural, speech-like quality of the poem. The poem continues on with no stanza breaks. There are no end-rhymes or rhyming patterns, but he applied assonance to many of the end-words. Examples of end-word assonance are wall, hill, balls, wall; well sun, thing, stone, mean, line; and again, game, them, him, him. The internal rhyming is subtle and comes away to the reader as coincidental. Frost uses no fancy vocabulary. The words are all short one or two syllable words except for one, the word ‘another’. (Sparknotes Editors)
Another recognizable device that could fall under this category is diction. The function of diction is to create an ambiguity in the poem, like what is seen in the first line. Diction also serves to emphasize an idea to more easily draw the reader’s attention to the desired concept and topic the writer means to be perceived. Specific lines, at least ten, within the poem show an intentional though behind the speaker’s word choice. An example of diction in “Mending Wall” is when the speaker states “there where it is we do not need the wall” (line 23). The diction here draws attention back to the main topic presented at the beginning of the poem. (Sparknotes Editors)
Another device worth mentioning is the physical structure of the poem, or how the poem appears on paper. The visual appearance of “Mending Wall” on paper is one of no stanza breaks and lines that form a smooth line down the left side of the paper, ending in roughly, but not exactly the same place on the right. This creates a poem that resembles a solid stone wall.
Characteristic of Frost’s poems, “Mending Wall” begins with what seems to be a straightforward idea, but ends in a much more complex place, with a much more complex idea. From the speaker’s words, it would seem there are two types of people. People who build unnecessary walls, using well-established cliché’s for justification are the first type. The second type are the people that rejoice at tearing down any time of barrier. The complexity, and the conflict, comes in when the reader is left wondering at the speaker’s willingness to rebuild the wall while at the same time expressing a desire to tear it down. (Sparknotes Editors)
The speaker in the poem obviously rejects the neighbor’s insistence that the wall is necessary. He approaches the activity with humor and a sort of detachment. However it must be noted that the speaker is the one who maintains the wall after damage from hunters throughout the year and it is the speaker who goes to the neighbor to set up a time for meeting at the wall. And while the speaker says he sees no need for a wall, he brings up “where there are cows”, implying a need for walls in certain places. Since the speaker initiates the act of wall-building between him and the neighbor he must gain something from it, else why would he continue the act year after year?
Frost gives his speaker ritual terms to describe the act of wall-building, phrasing it as an ancient task. The speaker talks of invoking “spells” to counteract the “elves” and keep the stones in place. He says the neighbor appears a “Stone-Age savage” as he uses two hands to place rock after rock back on the wall. (Sparknotes Editors) Wall-building is in fact an ancient task, since both literal and figurative walls were imperative to forming the foundations of the first ‘civilized’ societies. Walls are needed to keep animals from running away or mingling with other herds and to keep crops protected from animals. Established laws and rules are another kind of wall necessary in society. Court justice can be considered repairing holes in the wall, the holes symbolizing criminals. The court upholding the laws affirms the boundaries, or walls, of the individual’s rights. The wall-repair also serves a social aspect necessary to community. The civic “game” as the speaker calls the wall-building, is an excuse for the speaker and the neighbor to interact. For an entire day, the two walk the wall, working together in harmony and connecting in the mutual task. While the wall itself is an anti-social representation of self-confinement, the act of building the wall requires social cooperation and harmonious interaction. So does the speaker believe that good fences make good neighbors by the interaction required to build the fence?
Which brings the reader back to the fact that, between these two neighbor’s properties, there are no cows, as the speaker points out when he suggests there is no need for a fence there. The speaker is suggesting that, since there are no cows, the neighbor’s could manage social cooperation and harmonious interaction based on trust, goodwill, and communication. After all, poem says it twice: “something there is that does not love a wall.” Though the speaker gains something from the act of wall-building, there is still a powerful tendency to destroy the wall once and for all. It could be that the speaker desires more interaction with the neighbor, hence breaking the wall would create a need for repairing the wall and so they would meet again for the task. (Sparknotes Editors) It could also be a genuine desire or urge to break down close-minded boundaries. Frost leaves the conflict unresolved and at the end of the poem the speaker remains a contradiction, the question still hanging contemplatively in the air.
If the work is discussed with a more specific mind to the poem’s author, it is noticeable that Frost’s poetry often addressed the conflict resolving around boundaries and questioned their worth. The dual nature of walls seems a concept Frost mulled over repeatedly throughout his works. It is true that walls and barriers shut-in, but it is also true that barriers can provide a safe place for some people in which to express their creativity and offer challenging frameworks for others that serve to increase their productivity and drive them to higher attainments. This can be applied to Frost himself, who insisted on using poetic form, and yet managed to make his work distinctly identifiable.
Bartleby.com. Contents. 2013. Contents list. April 2013. <http://www.bartleby.com/118/index1.html>.
GradeSaver Editors. Robert Frost: Poems Summary and Analysis. 2013. Document. April 2013. <http://www.gradesaver.com/the-poetry-of-robert-frost/study-guide/section3/>.
Sparknotes Editors. SparkNote on Frost’s Early Poems. 12 April 2013. April 2013. <http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/frost/citing.html>.