Overview: "Mending Wall"

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Date: 1999
From: Poetry for Students(Vol. 5. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Length: 1,063 words

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About this Work
Title: Mending Wall (Poem)
Published: 1914
Genre: Poem
Author: Frost, Robert (American poet)
Occupation: American poet
Other Names Used: Frost, Robert Lee;
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First published in Robert Frost's second collection, , in 1914, " Mending Wall" is a narrative poem that presents an encounter between two neighbors whose property line is marked by a stone fence. Each spring, they cooperate in repairing the damage the winter weather has caused to it. Although the speaker of the poem claims to believe the wall is unnecessary, he is clearly ambivalent about its presence, since he also initiates the repair. His neighbor, on the other hand, strongly asserts his desire to maintain the wall, repeating the line, "Good fences make good neighbors." Throughout the poem, the wall functions as a metaphor, indicating the necessity of simultaneous connection and separation between human beings. Although individuals long to connect with one another, a connection that is too close or boundaries that are indistinct can be dangerous. Yet, disruption of these boundaries is probably inevitable, since the "frozen-ground-swell" that damages the wall, though it occurs annually, is never observed. The neighbors can only maintain their relationship through conscious attention to the wall that separates them.


Lines 1-4:

Here the wall is introduced as a primary symbol in the poem. Whatever it is that protests against it, however, is vague and perhaps unnameable. This something is powerful, though, since it can create "gaps even two can pass abreast." Presumably, the speaker and his neighbor could step together from one side of the fence to the other, but they don't consider doing that.

Lines 5-9:

In these lines the speaker contrasts the natural, yet almost secret, destruction of the wall by a "ground-swell" with the intentional destruction created by hunters. The speaker recognizes and understands their motive.

Lines 10-11:

The speaker reinforces the idea that these breaks created by nature are more mysterious than those made by the hunters. This action cannot be observed, though the effects are consistent year after year.

Lines 12-16:

Here, the speaker's ambivalence becomes apparent. Although he will attempt to present the desire for walls as belonging solely to his neighbor, he is the one who arranges to repair the wall. The separation between the two is emphasized in these lines, as they walk on opposite sides of the wall and as they are each responsible for replacing the stones that have fallen on each one's side. While they are performing this act together, they do not actually assist each other.

Lines 17-19:

The tone becomes a bit more playful in these lines, as the farmers attempt to cast a "spell" on the stones. This idea will be reinforced later when the speaker thinks about "elves."

Lines 20-22:

Although the speaker wants to present this activity as insignificant, as "just another ... game," he also reveals that the task has its difficult physical aspects.

Lines 23-26:

In this section, which occurs near the center of the poem and explicitly illustrates the poem's central tension, the speaker attempts to present himself as desiring a closer relationship with his neighbor. He does this with a joke that is founded on a practical observation. Because farmers often use fences to keep their livestock separated, this fence should be unnecessary--pine trees and apple trees will not become confused with each other, nor will one eat the fruit or seeds of the other.

Line 27:

In this line, the neighbor speaks for himself; he presents himself directly rather than through the eyes of the speaker. His personality is conveyed in this one line, which will be repeated later, but which is the only thought we receive from the neighbor. Rather than respond to the speaker's practical observation, the neighbor responds more abstractly, with a metaphor. Sometimes, he seems to suggest, the characteristics of our physical relationships directly influence our emotional relationships. Although he never states what he believes constitutes a good neighbor, he implies that some clear separation is essential.

Lines 28-31:

Again, the speaker considers trying to provoke his neighbor with practical objections, but he never makes this statement out loud.

Lines 32-35:

In this section the speaker also begins to speculate abstractly, and the symbolic significance of the wall becomes apparent as he uses the phrase "walling in" and "walling out." The double function of a wall is addressed, for not only are outsiders prevented from entry, but insiders are trapped inside. The speaker considers the possibility that walls "give offence" as he himself seems to be slightly offended, but he never reaches a conclusion about what it is within himself that is either walled in or walled out. Nor does he say that he himself doesn't love a wall, only that "Something" doesn't. We are meant to assume that the "something" is internal to the speaker, but his refusal to clearly acknowledge this attitude conveys his own ambivalence.

Lines 36-38:

In these lines, the speaker again reveals his ambivalent attitude. He thinks about being playful, suggesting that "Elves" destroyed their wall, but he also longs for the neighbor to be playful, and besides, the speaker can't be entirely playful himself; he knows "it's not elves exactly."

Lines 39-42:

Here the speaker presents his neighbor as more mysterious and primitive than himself, relying on a simile to convey his observation: "like an old-stone savage armed." This simile is appropriate because the farmers are literally using stones as their tools, but stone tools have the connotation of "savage." He implies that the neighbor is also using the stones as weapons; he is "armed." In a sense, then, the fence becomes a weapon, even if its purpose is primarily defense. The speaker then moves from thoughts of the Stone Age to thoughts of the Dark Ages, where darkness functions as a symbol for a lack of insight that is understood as progress. His darkness is more than literal, more than the shade provided by the trees, but also emotional in his refusal to become connected.

Lines 43-45:

In these lines, the speaker indicates that the neighbor will not take a risk, because he will not reveal the reasons for his attitude beyond the fact that it reflects his father's attitude. Because the line "Good fences make good neighbors" has been repeated, and because it forms the last line of the poem, it becomes highly significant. The reader will remember it as the speaker remembers it, and perhaps the reader will have to puzzle out its meaning as the speaker attempts to do.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1430005838