Summary and Analysis of the Poem "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost

Updated on December 1, 2016
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Frost in 1913
Robert Frost in 1913 | Source

Robert Frost's Mending Wall


Written in 1914, Mending Wall is a poem in blank verse that remains relevant for these uncertain times. It involves two rural neighbors who one spring day meet to walk along the wall that separates their properties and repair it where needed.

The speaker in the poem is a progressive individual who starts to question the need for such a wall in the first place. The neighbor beyond the hill is a traditionalist and has, it seems, little time for such nonsense.

'Good fences make good neighbors,' is all he will say.

We all have neighbors, we all know that walls eventually need repairing. Walls separate and keep people apart, walls deny right of passage and yet provide security. Despite the need for such a barrier, the opening line - Something there is that doesn't love a wall, - implies that the idea of a wall isn't that straightforward.

Robert Frost, in his own inimitable way, invites the reader into controversy by introducing mischief into the poem. The speaker wants to put a notion into the head of his neighbor, to ask him to explain why is it good walls make good neighbors, but in the end says nothing.

A wall may seem useful in the countryside as it could help keep livestock safe and secure and mark a definite boundary. But a wall that separates village from village, city from city, country from country, people from people, family from family - that's a completely different scenario.

Robert Frost's poem can help pinpoint such issues and bring them out into the open.

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 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.
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 neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? 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 neighbours."

Themes

The Wall as a Physical Barrier

The Berlin Wall

Property Disputes

Neighbors

Traditions

Rural Boundaries

Family Values

Change/Transition

Trespassing

Taboo Subjects

Sensitive Topics

Analysis


Frost uses blank verse for the form of the poem. Blank verse is unrhymed and mostly employs iambic pentameter, five feet per line, to drive the narrative:

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.

Sometimes trochaic meter is used but usually iambs rule within the ten syllables per line, which keeps the wall intact but leaves room for modification. However, lack of end-rhyme in blank verse denies the purely lyrical so the poet is certain that all 45 lines will have an individual sound.

Frost's genius lies in his diction and delivery - he's colloquial yet profound, and there are lines here that stay in the memory because they have a certain rhythm and music. They tempt the mind and please the voice.

As the poem progresses the differences between the two become more marked. By line 14 the two neighbors are walking either side of the wall, picking up and replacing various shaped boulders until they reach some trees where there might not be a need for a wall.

The speaker goads the other protagonist. This is Frost the poet spicing things up with mischief and fun by suggesting this annual, seasonal walk is nothing more than a game, that one neighbor is all pine and the other an apple orchard.

Tension becomes apparent as soon as the line Good fences make good neighbors appears, for it is this reply that sparks the speaker's need to know why a wall (a fence) can make somebody good.

We're approaching moral territory here and in lines 32/33/34 an interesting issue arises:

When a wall is built, something is walled in and something is walled out. It becomes easier to offend someone so it's best to know beforehand just exactly why a wall needs to be constructed. Little wonder President Kennedy used Frost's lines when speaking at the Berlin Wall in the 1960s.

'I am both wall builder and wall destroyer,' Frost wrote to his friend Charles Foster. Meaning? As a poet words are used to build up something solid and hopefully enduring whilst at the same time a poet needs to break down walls that are no longer needed and are in fact obstacles to progress.

Further Analysis


Just what is it that doesn't love a wall? In this cold, rural setting common sense shows us that swollen ground upsets the stone formation; Nature herself knows no boundaries. Tree roots, hunters and dogs, even Elves, may be responsible for other gaps in the wall.

The speaker taunts and teases but it's more an internal mind game - there is no real, open dialogue or debate about the necessity of a wall. But there is the feeling that the speaker could well exist without a wall, whilst the entrenched neighbor relies on ancestral/patriarchal ties to maintain the solid barrier of stone.

So as we near the end of the poem the scene becomes one of observer and observed. The traditionalist is now

............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.


There are subtle variations on a monologue. The speaker is trying to convey the idea that there's this thick-skinned male he shares a boundary with, whose very identity is dependent on the wall being repaired so as to ensure continuity.

Despite the gap between speaker and neighbor, in the end the wall gets mended.

Questions & Answers

  • Who initiates the annual fixing of the wall in the poem "Mending Wall"?

    Please read the analysis in my article.

© 2016 Andrew Spacey

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