Robert Frost's "Mending Wall"

Updated on April 24, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Robert Frost

Source

Introduction and Text of "Mending Wall"

Robert Frost's widely anthologized poem,"Mending Wall," is one of those pieces that prompt adolescents to come away with the notion that Frost is making some profound statement about human behavior. However much immature minds are left to muse on profundity, Frost's speaker is just making light of a routine task that neighbors in his neck of the woods at that time period went through as part of farm labor. The speaker would like to draw some lively conversation from his neighbor as they repair the fence, but he finds the neighbor not amenable to such banter.

Mending Wall

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 out-door 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 offence.
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."

Frost reading "Mending Wall"

Commentary

The speaker in Frost's "Mending Wall" is a provocateur, questioning the wall's purpose, chiding his neighbor about it, yet he seems to be the one more concerned about its repair.

First Movement: The Crotchety Do Not Care for Walls

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;

The crotchety speaker of Robert Frost's famous "Mending Wall" sets out to disturb the notion that farm neighbors should retain walls between their properties. He does so by insinuating that nature itself does not like walls.

The speaker asserts that it is likely the earth disapproves of that human activity by "send[ing] the frozen-ground-swell under it" which "spills the upper boulder in the sun." That marvelous and humorous activity of the earth leaves big openings through which two human bodies might be able to walk "abreast." In its winter-frozen state, the very earth revolts against the wall, first bolting upward and then shrinking in the sun those carefully placed rocks of the wall until they come toppling down to leave those big apertures in the structure.

And then there is the problem with "hunters." On the hunt, they have been known to knock down whole sections of wall as they chase after their dogs sniffing out rabbits. The speaker's concern for his wall is so great that he has trailed after those hunters and repaired his wall right after they have chinked it. The speaker, however, does not begin by naming any speculative reasons for the gaps in his fence. He leaves the causes somewhat mysterious as if there does not seem to be a reason for the falling rocks. He wants to imply that perhaps God himself is telling the fence builders something, but he does not want to sound so dramatic, thus he leaves it as "something."

Second Movement: Calling for a Working Meeting

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.

The wall-disdaining speaker then calls on his neighbor to arrange a meeting for mending the fence together. During the process of mending the wall, the speaker remains on his own side of the wall, while his neighbor does the same.

They hand each other rocks as they go along. The speaker says that some of the rocks look like loaves of bread while others just look like balls. He complains that it is very difficult to get some of them to remain in place. The speaker attempts to inject a little humor into the joint endeavor by saying that the neighbors have to "use of spell" on the rocks to get them to stay in place "until our backs are turned!" He complains that handing the rocks makes their fingers get "rough."

Third Movement: Little More Importance than a Game

Oh, just another kind of out-door 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?

Possibly from boredom, the speaker asserts that their endeavor has little more importance than a game placed outside, such as badminton or tennis. Because his property has only apple trees and his neighbors possesses only pine trees, which cannot move onto the other's property, the speaker wants to let his neighbor know that he thinks this ritual is unnecessary. Because the speaker finds this chore tedious and without purpose, he states outright: "My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines." To this remark, his neighbor retorts the now famous line, "Good fences make good neighbors."

The playful speaker asserts that spring causes him to be somewhat mischievous. But still he seriously would like to understand the notion of his neighbor. Even more importantly, the speaker would like to "put a notion in [his neighbor's] head." So the speaker asks, "Why do fences make good neighbors?" But instead of listening for a reply, the speaker continues his thought that there is really no need for a fence because his apple trees and the neighbor's pine trees will never cross onto the wrong property to each other.

Fourth Movement: Walling Out 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 offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."

The speaker could accept the efficacy of a wall if there were cows involved. Cows might amble onto the other guy's property and do some damage. But because only trees are involved the speaker finds the need for a fence questionable. The speaker then asserts that if he had his way, he would put up a wall only if he felt it was worth fencing something in or out. He would also want to get permission from his neighbor to avoid the possibility of giving offense to the neighbor.

The walls do not want to stay in place, the speaker has found, and thus the speaker seems to think that the wall itself does not really want to be erected. Thus the speaker reiterates his opening claims that there is something out their that just "doesn't love a wall." But now he adds, not only does that something not love a wall, but it also "wants it down!" Of course, it is the speaker who wants it down because he does not want to have to keep mending it several times a year. He therefore concludes that "something" does not want the wall.

Fifth Movement: Good Neighbor Policy

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."

With much mischief in mind, the speaker again would like to chide his neighbor by suggesting that perhaps elves were wreaking the havoc with the wall. He thinks better of the elves remark but still wishes the neighbor would say something colorful. However, the neighbor simply repeats his only thought: "Good fences make good neighbors."

The speaker assumes that his neighbor simply lacks a sense of humor and that the man is so set in his ways that he could never entertain a notion different from what his father thought. If the wall cannot be dispensed with, the speaker would at least enjoy having a lively conversation with his neighbor as they mend the wall. Alas, the speaker cannot pull from his neighbor any responses, thus the speaker must muse alone in their endeavor.

Life Sketch of Robert Frost

Robert Frost's father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist, living in San Fransisco, California, when Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874; Robert's mother, Isabelle, was an immigrant from Scotland. The young Frost spent eleven years of his childhood in San Fransisco. After his father died of tuberculosis, Robert's mother moved the family, including his sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived with Robert's paternal grandparents.

Robert graduated in 1892 from Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife, Elinor White, served as co-valedictorians. Robert thEn made his first attempt to attend college at Dartmouth College; after only a few months, he returned to Lawrence and began working a series of part-time jobs.

Elinor White, who was Robert's high school sweetheart, was attending St. Lawrence University when Robert proposed to her. She turned him down because she wanted to finish college before marrying. Robert then relocated to Virginia, and then after returning to Lawrence, he again to proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education. The two married on December 19, 1895. Their first child, Eliot, was born the following year.

Robert then made another attempt to attend college; in 1897, he enrolled in Harvard University, but because of health issues, he had to leave school again. Robert rejoined his wife in Lawrence, and their second child Lesley was born in 1899 . The family then moved to a New Hampshire farm that Robert's grandparents had acquired for him. Thus, Robert's farming phase commenced as he attempted to farm the land and continue his writing. His first poem to appear in print, “My Butterfly," had been published on November 8, 1894, in The Independent, a New York newspaper.

The next twelve years proved a difficult time in Frost's personal life, but a fertile one for his writing. The Frosts' first child, Eliot, died in 1900 of cholera. The couple, however, went on to have four more children, each of which suffered from mental illness to suicide. The couple's farming endeavors continued to result in unsuccessful attempts. Frost became well adjusted to rustic life, despite his miserable failure as a farmer.

Frost's writing life took off in a splendid fashion, and the rural influence on his poems would later set the tone and style for all of his works. However, despite the success of his individual published poems, such "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," he could not find a publisher for his collections of poems.

Relocation to England

It was because of his failure to find a publisher for his collections of poems that Frost sold the New Hampshire farm and moved his family to England in 1912. This moved proved to be life-line for the young poet. At age 38, he secured a publisher in England for his collection, A Boy's Will, and soon after North of Boston.

In addition to finding a publisher for his two books, Frost became acquainted with Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two important poets of the day. Both Pound and Thomas reviewed Frost's two book favorably, and thus Frost's career as a poet moved forward.

Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas was especially important, and Frost has remarked that the long walks taken by the two poet/friends had influenced his writing in a marvelously positive manner. Frost has credited Thomas for his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," which was sparked by Thomas' attitude regarding not being able to take two different paths on their long walks.

Returning to America

After World War 1 broke out in Europe, the Frosts set sail back to the United States. The brief sojourn in England had had useful consequences for the poet's reputation, even back in his native country. American Publisher, Henry Holt, picked up Frost's earlier books, and then come out with his third, Mountain Interval, a collection that had been written while Frost was still residing in England.

Frost was treated to the delicious situation of having the same journals, such as The Atlantic, soliciting his work, even though they had rejected that same work a couple of years earlier.

The Frosts once again became owners of a farm located in Franconia, New Hampshire, which they purchased in 1915. The end of their traveling days were over, and Frost continued his writing career, as he taught intermittently at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and particularly Amherst College, where he taught regularly from 1916 until 1938. Amherst's main library is now the Robert Frost Library, honoring the long-time educator and poet. He also spent most summers teaching English at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Frost never completed a college degree, but over his entire lifetime, the revered poet accumulated more than forty honorary degrees. He also won the Pulitzer Prize four times for his books, New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree.

Frost considered himself a "lone wolf" in the world of poetry because he did not follow any literary movements. His only influence was the human condition in a world of duality. He did not pretend to explain that condition; he only sought to create little dramas to reveal the nature of the emotional life of a human being.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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