Mending Wall by Robert Frost

In life we do not choose the nationality, family or culture into which we are born. We are raised to become what our parents believe and think. As we grow older we become involved in relationships.

We learn to put barriers between ourselves and others because of culture, language, economy and so many other reasons. We dismiss very easily removing these barriers to restore friendly relations. We prefer to keep to the fortresses we’ve built around ourselves.

Robert Frost was a man who found barriers to be as formidable as the seasonal hunter with his hounds. He wrote Mending Wall as a metaphorical message to the senselessness in divisions. While not liking it, he sadly accepts it as it bears witness to human attitudes.

Mending Wall is set in rural New England, where field boundaries are evocatively created from walls of piled boulders and stones. Hunters with hounds set out over the fields and walls in search of fox and hare.

Frost uses blank verse with rich and varied enjambment giving the poem a narrative and conversational rhythm.

“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.”

A sense of mystery is created in the first line. Perhaps winter-frost causes the ground to freeze and swell making the stones fall from the top, leaving large gaps. It’s as if the writer’s sentiment is being shared and the mysterious force works under the wall to bring it down. The gaps are large enough that two people can pass through side by side. It’s a lesson in unity that exists throughout the observable world and Frost finds it difficult to understand why he and his neighbour rebuild the wall every year.

“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.”

The hunters, in their quest to destroy, break down the wall as if opposed to it, too. The writer follows them to repair the damage and finds, as if by magic, new gaps.

“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: “

The annual repairing of the wall is arranged where the poet and his neighbour walk the length of the wall, each on his own side. They pick up the stones and replace them. The irony of their activity lies in their cooperation: working together to keep apart. They keep the wall between them.

The imagery used to describe the stones shows the futility of their effort. They find it difficult to keep the “loaves” and “balls” in place. A spell is needed to keep them from falling again. One man is creative and imaginative. The other is unimaginative and just. The writer finds amusement in the task speaking of “loaves” and “balls” and expecting them to stay where they are until their backs are turned. The neighbour keeps to his side picking up the stones, expecting the writer to keep to his side, doing the same. And they keep the wall between them as they go.

“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.”

The poet questions the necessity of having a wall if they only have trees on their farms. The neighbour has pine trees and the poet has apple trees. The neighbour however is conventional:

“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.”

The neighbour implies that they should live separate from each other. The poet wishes to plant a seed in the mind of the neighbour whose stubborn ignorance blinds him to what is important. The poet feels that it would be more important to have walls if they were farming with livestock. The poet says that walls should be built for a purpose. People need to know what they’re walling in … or out. He becomes mischievous contemplating the presence of elves that make the walls disappear.

“… I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.”

The neighbour is serious and keeps to the traditions with which he was raised. It is almost as if the wall’s existence is a primitive form of protection.

“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.”

The neighbour’s ignorance is a metaphorical darkness. He is negative and refuses to reason with the poet. He repeats what his father always said: ‘Good fences make good neighbours’. To this man their relationship is maintained through the existence of the wall.

Without it, there would be neither peace nor respect.

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