Read below our complete notes on the poem “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost. Our notes cover the background, summary, themes, and analysis of Mending Wall by Robert Frost.
Background of the Poem
Robert Frost is one of the most beloved poets of America. Robert Frost wrote “Mending Wall” in 1914, at the peak of literary modernism. “Mending Wall” is one of his most well-known and well-appreciated poems. This poem narrates the story of a stone wall that is constructed between two properties of two neighbors in the countryside. Some unseen and unheard agents continually destroy this wall. An appealing aspect of “Mending Wall” is the addition of a sense of mystery and loneliness by Frost. The poem begins as a quest to find the identity of the wall-destroyer. It ends in a meditation on the worth of tradition and boundaries.
“Mending Wall” is the first poem in North of Boston that is the second book of poetry by Frost. It was published when Frost was in England. Frost was living at the time of many modernist poetic movements. However, he isn’t associated with any specific group of poets. His style in “Mending Wall” marches to his drummer. This poem received a good deal of criticism from the literary world. But, it is precisely Frost’s originality that shines through this poem.
When “Mending Wall” was published, it was the height of modernism, a broad and complicated literary theory. It was the time when literature responded to the dramatic hype of industrialization and urbanization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At that time, literature emphasized the sense of loneliness that many people felt in a new modern world. Literature did it by breaking from traditional literary forms. Modernist writers made a new path and started writing without meter, rhyme, or a proper form. Additionally, new forms were invented. Fragments and quotations were brought together. Poets at the time of “Mending Wall” sought to cultivate the same innovation and excitement in the literature that they saw in the world around them.
Frost’s relationship with modernism and “Mending Wall” has been a topic of hot debate among scholars for many years. Many critics dismissed this poem as out of touch and even anti-modernist. The environment shown in “Mending Wall” is far from the busy cities of early twentieth-century America.
It uses free verse that is one of the most prestigious traditional forms.
More recent critics have defended Frost and argued for counting him and this poem among the modernists. Though this poem is far from the most radical poems of the modernist poets, it nonetheless makes significant and subtle innovations in the forms it uses. These innovations are evident in “Mending Wall” and in the irony that suffuses the poem.
The poem does not resolve its argument for its readers. It also does not present a particularly trustworthy or admirable speaker. The old certainties have fallen away. While “Mending Wall” may be distant from the pulsing heart of modernity, all the uncertainty and disorientation that modernism possesses are evident in the poem.
“Mending Wall” was written in the early 1910s. It was a transitional period in American life. The years just before the Great War, WWI (1914-1918), were surrounded by broad social and political changes. The old order of imperialism, formality, rigid class structure was dying away and a new order of society emerged.
Because of the mass immigration and industrialization, the United States became a substantially more diverse and populous place than it had been at its founding. It had become a substantially more urban place as well. The gentlemen farmers who established American democracy had been replaced by the ill-tempered urban political parties. Alongside this, there were populist rural political movements as well. Further, the country expanded from the Atlantic coastline to the Pacific. The frontier had been officially declared closed in 1890.
As these rapid transformations took place, a series of tension developed in the country. There occurred a clash between urban and rural populations. The clash was also between the educated upper class and wide swaths of uneducated or under-educated people. New England Protestants, who could trace their ancestors to the earliest pilgrims, came in a fight with the more recent Catholic and Jewish arrivals.
Although “Mending Wall” does not openly acknowledge this societal context, it is indirectly expressed throughout the poem. One might read the argument between the speaker and his neighbor as an expression of the tussle between an urban and rural population. It can be taken as friction between the two persons regarding an old New England stock and a newer crop of immigrants who are claiming the country and trying to shape it line with their ideals.
Summary of Mending Wall by Robert Frost
The poem starts with the speaker who talks about a force that doesn’t like walls and breaks it again and again. This force causes the frozen water to swell under a wall. It also causes the wall’s upper stones to fall off its top in the warmth of the sun. It creates gaps in the wall so big that two people can walk through them shoulder-to-shoulder in the same direction.
There are the hunters who make holes in the wall but it is something different. The speaker often comes to fix those spots. The hunters haven’t left even a single stone in its place. They tried to allow the rabbits to come out that hide in the wall to make their barking dogs happy and feed them. No one has seen or heard these gaps in the wall when they are made. The speaker and other nearby people just see them there in the spring when it is time to fix the wall.
The speaker contacts his neighbor who lives on the other side of the hill. They find a spring day to meet and walk together along the wall. They start fixing these gaps as they go.
The neighbor of the speaker walks on his side of the wall while the speaker walks on his. They only fix those stones that have fallen off the wall on their side of it. Some of them look like a piece of bread and some are round in shape. They pray that they stay in their place. They also pray that they remain balanced on the top of the wall. The speaker and his neighbor keep on saying: “Don’t fall back until we’re gone from here!” Their fingers get scratches from picking up the rough stones. It’s just another outdoor activity for them. Each one of them plays this game on their side of the wall. It is nothing more.
According to the speaker, there’s no good reason for a wall to be there. On his neighbor’s side of the wall, there’s nothing but only pine trees. On the speaker’s side of the wall, there is an apple orchard. The speaker says that his apple trees are never going to cross their limit. They are not likely to cross the wall and eat his neighbor’s pine cones. He says this to his neighbor but he only responds that “Good fences are necessary to have good neighbors.” Since it is spring and the speaker feels prankish, he thinks if he could make his neighbor ask himself “are these walls and boundaries necessary? Isn’t that only necessary if one is trying to keep his neighbor’s cows away from his fields? There aren’t any cows here.
The speaker says that If he were to construct a wall, he would like to know what he was keeping in and what he was keeping out, and who was going to be displeased by this. Some force doesn’t love a wall. It wants to break it down. The speaker suggests that Elves are responsible for the gaps in the wall, but it’s not Elves.
The speaker wants his neighbor to find it out on his own. He sees him when he lifts stones, grasps them firmly in each of his hands. He acts like an ancient warrior. He moves in deep darkness and it is not just the darkness of the thick woods or the trees. He does not want to think otherwise about his fixed idea about the world. He likes to articulate this idea so clearly. Therefore, he says it again: “Good fences are necessary to have good neighbors.”
Themes in Mending Wall
Borders and Limits
“Mending Wall” is a poem about borders and limitations. The speaker and the speaker’s neighbor are involved in an argument about rebuilding a wall that divides their properties. They argue about the role of the boundary wall and its effects on relationships.
The wall seems practically and politically unnecessary to the speaker of the poem. He is of the opinion that walls separate people and harm their otherwise smooth relations. However, the neighbor has the view that walls strengthen and improve relationships because they allow people to treat each other fairly and prevent conflict. According to him, walls make people stay in their limits. The poem itself doesn’t decide who is correct. The poem ultimately allows its readers to decide for themselves which vision of the human community is most persuasive and livable.
The speaker asks his neighbor what is the reason to continue rebuilding the wall. In response, the neighbor says repeatedly that “Good fences make good neighbors.” He believes that it is important for a good neighbor to maintain clear boundaries. They prevent problems arising between people who live closely. The neighbor seems to predict the possibility of future conflicts and considers it important to prevent them in advance. However, these issues are fundamental to human society.
The poem lets the readers decide for themselves who is correct and who is wrong. This poem forces the readers to make up their minds about the necessity of walls, borders, and other political and physical agents that separate people.
The Value of Work
The work that the speaker and his neighbor do is ritualistic. Each year in spring, the speaker and his neighbor talk an inspection walk along the wall together. They together repair those areas of the wall that have been damaged over the years. It is tedious because, in the end, their hands get injured by lifting the rocks. In spite of the difficulty, they renew the wall each spring. The act of repairing the wall represents human labor.
There is a reference to the myth of Sisyphus. He was the king of Corinth. He was a crafty and deceitful person. As a punishment, he was forced to spend eternity in taking a boulder up to the top of the hill by pushing. When he reached the top, the boulder would roll back to the bottom and he would have to start all over again.
Similarly, the speaker and his neighbor would reconstruct the wall and they would have to do it again next spring. For Sisyphus, the rolling down of the boulder was a punishment by the gods. In “Mending Wall,” nature, with its capacity to damage man-made structures, defeats human ambitions. It forces the speaker and his neighbor in particular and humanity, in general, to repeat the same process again without making any visible progress.
Additionally, the task in the poem is tiring and repetitive. The speaker wants to stop it but his neighbor insists to continue. It suggests that the work is valuable that the speaker cannot realize. It is not the fence that makes a good neighbor or it is not the wall that establishes good relations. In simpler words, it is the rebuilding of the fence and walls that make good neighbors by making them work together.
For the speaker, the end result of the work is important. He values the permanent difference that such physical products make at the end. Oppositely, his neighbor values the work itself because he considers the work as an end in itself. He is of the view that work maintains a fair society.
This poem also implicitly points towards the value of creative work. Such work is beautiful that does not materially change the society but satisfies one’s mind and soul.
Customs, Traditions, and Modernity
Throughout the poem, the poet indirectly raises the question of the possibility of change. The speaker is of the opinion that his neighbor’s ideas are outdated. The speaker calls his neighbor an “old-stone savage armed.” He considers him a primitive man with a stone in his hands as if he is fighting a battle. The poem makes the readers think if the debate between the speaker and his neighbor will ever resolve. The speaker keeps on objecting to the activity but he still reconstructs the wall.
The speaker uses simple, every-day language. He seems an educated man. He is clearly a loquacious figure. Also, he has enough knowledge of philosophy when he cites the writings of Henry David Thoreau by referring to “cows.” The speaker also refers to the mythical “Elves” that they might be the reason for the damage of the wall. The speaker uses the blank verse in a rough but observable fashion to convey ideas to the reader.
On the other side, the neighbor of the speaker is an old-fashioned man. He says only one sentence in the poem and repeats it. He speaks directly and in an unpretentious manner. The speaker emphasizes the unwillingness of his neighbor to think broadly. The speaker objects to his neighbor for relying on received wisdom. The only job that the neighbor is concerned about is the reconstruction of the wall. He has not improved beyond the primitive level.
According to this contrast, the speaker of the poem is a modern figure. The speaker admires himself for coming out of the darkness of the primitive state. He looks down upon his neighbor who is still moving in the darkness. The speaker of the poem believes that he has got an enlightened and peaceful way of life. Yet it is the speaker who lets his speaker know that the wall needs repair.
In this way, this poem suggests that as long as the people hold old ideas and beliefs, society itself will be affected by them. The society will be unable to refuse those notions that its people hold. It is hard to demolish the beliefs of the past completely and to bring change for the future.
Mending Wall Analysis
Lines 1 – 4
In these lines, the speaker predicts that there is something that causes the wall to break down again and again. The speaker thinks that maybe the water under the ground gets frozen which results in ice that expands to cause cracks in the wall. It also makes the stones at the top of the wall fall down. With time, the crack in the wall grows so wide that it becomes possible for two people to pass through it by walking shoulder-to-shoulder.
Lines 5 – 11
In these lines, the speaker does not agree with the idea that the wall could have been damaged by the hunters. He says that he himself has repaired the wall after the hunters have broken it. The hunters have displaced the stones to allow rabbits to come out of their holes. This way, they would feed their hungry barking dogs. However, according to the speaker, the gaps in the wall are made by something else that is not seen or heard by anyone. The speaker always finds the damage in the wall every spring.
Lines 12 – 15
The wall is between two farms that are separated by a hill. The speaker informs his neighbor about the hole who is living on the other side of the hill. They both meet one another on a fixed day and take a walk along the wall. The damaged wall separates them as they walk on each side of the wall. The speaker and his neighbor inspect the damage on their own side. The farmer who lives on the other side of the hill is informed about the hole.
Lines 16 – 19
The speaker says that he and his neighbor take the responsibility to put the rocks back on their position. However, each one of them fixes their own side. It is an exhausting task for both. The rocks are not regular in shape. Some of them are in the shape of bread while others are round. Nothing can hold them in their places except a magic spell. Therefore, the speaker tells the stones to stay at the positions unless they are gone.
Lines 20 – 24
In these lines, the speaker says that their hands get injured because of picking up the heavy and rough stones. For the speaker, this activity is just like an outdoor game where there is only one rival on each side. It feels like they are playing some sort of game where there is only one opponent on each side. It seems to the speaker more like a game rather than a hectic work. The speaker does not consider it necessary to rebuild the wall because he and his neighbor are growing different plants. The speaker grows apples while his neighbor grows pines.
Lines 25 –29
In these lines, the poet says that he tells his neighbor that his apple trees will never cross their limits and reach his property. In response, his neighbor says that it is necessary for a good neighbor to construct fences. The speaker seems unconvinced by the logic of his neighbor. He says that he feels a little naughty. Therefore, he thinks to convince his neighbor with his opinion.
Lines 30 – 35
In these lines, the speaker asks his neighbor why fences are necessary to maintain good relationships with neighbors. The speaker is of the idea that fences are only required in these places where there are cows. As there are no cows where the wall stands, the speaker does not understand the point of constructing a wall. The speaker wants to know what will be protected by the walls. He also wants to know who will dislike the idea of building a wall.
Lines 36 – 41
Here, the speaker again predicts that the wall could have been broken down by Elves. He does not want to tell his neighbor about this assumption because he wants him to figure it out on his own. As the neighbor works, the speaker compares him to an uncivilized person who is living in a dark age. According to the speaker, the stones in the hands of his neighbor seem like his weapons.
Lines 42 – 46
In these last lines, the speaker says that his neighbor is still moving in the darkness. Although the world has become modernized, his neighbor is still unaware of all the advancements and changes. His neighbor always follows what his father has said to him. He says again that divisions through fences are important.
Speaker and Narration
The speaker of “Mending Wall” narrates the poem from his point of view in first-person dramatic narration. The speaker in the poem possesses a carefree attitude towards reconstructing a boundary wall. He does not see any valid reason for dividing properties. He has a radical and enlightened mind as opposed to his neighbor’s narrow mindedness.
Setting of the Poem
The setting of “Mending Wall” is the site of the stone wall between the farms. The wall has been damaged. The two farms on either side of the wall belong to two hardworking farmers. One of them is the speaker of the poem. This location belongs to a rural area of New England. The two men are arguing about how the wall is broken. They are walking on each side of the broken wall. It is the spring season.
The tone of “Mending Wall” is quite mysterious. It suggests that some natural or supernatural force is breaking the wall again and again. The speaker and his neighbor in the poem have never seen or heard any such force. This mysterious tone changes into a mischievous and sarcastic tone when the speaker convinces his neighbor with this opinion. The speaker could have rejected his neighbor’s view straight away but he listens carefully and patiently.
Form and Style
“Mending Wall” is written in blank verse. It is a form of poetry with unrhymed lines in iambic pentameter. It has five pairs of syllables per line. Each pair contains an unstressed syllable that is followed by a stressed syllable.
The speaker says that the frozen ground swells. Frost is a mysterious force in “Mending Wall.” This frost damages the wall each winter in a powerful way. Despite the force of frost, there is something else that is more powerful and undetectable. That unseen and unheard force does not like the wall and it damages it again and again.
The frost and the unknown force behind it thus have a complex and mysterious role in the poem. Frost is a real and natural phenomenon. The speaker in the poem has given it a supernatural quality. The reader might take both frost and the unknown entity as the representation of nature itself and its effects on man-made objects. The things that are made by a man are weak and temporary. Such objects are always vulnerable to stronger forces that damage them sooner or later.
The spring is typically taken as a symbol of rebirth. In poems, spring acts as a renewal. In “Mending Wall,” spring is the symbol of rebirth. Spring is that time of the year when the speaker and his neighbor reconstruct the wall.
In Christianity, spring is linked with the resurrection of Christ. The renewal that the speaker and his neighbor take part in is quite different from Christ’s resurrection. The renewal in the poem has resulted from human work. It is temporary that needs a rebirth every year like a ritual.
A fence is a partition that divides two places. In “Mending Wall,” the wall divides the two people’s property. The speaker used “fences” and “wall” interchangeably. Fences in the poem do not only symbolize the physical division between properties but it represents human’s limitations. The poem presents the points that such divisions and limitations are important to sustain good relationships. The poem asks the questions if such borders separate people into “them” and “us” or do they clearly define limitations for peaceful living.
In American philosophical tradition, cows symbolize damage that one person may cause to another. They represent those small conflicts that cause huge destruction if they are unchecked. Cows symbolize greed and selfishness. When a person allows his cows to graze on another person’s pasture, it shows that he is controlling another person’s resources. In “Mending Wall,” neither the speaker nor his neighbor has cows. It shows that they are not competing with one another for resources and they can live peacefully.
The speaker of the poem says that his neighbor moves in darkness. It is not literal darkness. It is symbolic darkness. In the western world, darkness represents ignorance. On the other side, light symbolizes knowledge and open-mindedness. The speaker’s neighbor is stuck to outdated ideas and he does not know anything about the ways of the modern world.
Literary devices in the Poem
When a speaker addresses an absent person or a non-living entity, it is called an apostrophe. In “Mending Wall,” the speaker uses apostrophe in line nineteenth when he and his neighbor say that “Stay where you are unless our backs are turned.” Here, they tell the stones to stay balanced. The speaker again uses apostrophe from line thirty to thirty-five when he asks questions from his neighbor.
Personification means to attribute human qualities to something that is not human. In this poem, the speaker personifies his apple trees. He says that his apple trees will never cross their limits and eat his neighbor’s pines. He also personifies “fences” by saying that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Making relationships is a human quality.
Epigram means to make a brief yet interesting and memorable satirical statement. In this poem, the speaker says that “Good fences make good neighbors.” it means that it is important for peaceful coexistence that people do not interfere with one another’s businesses.
When a comparison is made between two things by using “like” and “as,” it is called a simile. In this poem, the poet uses simile when he compares his neighbor to a “savage” from the primitive age. He makes this comparison by using “like.”
It is the repetition of the same vowel sound in a line. In this poem, the sound /e/ is repeated in “To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean.”
It refers to the continuation of a line without a pause at the end. For example,
“And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Imagery means to make the readers identify things with their five senses. Visual imagery is used in “Mending Wall.” For example, “And some are loaves and some so nearly balls”, “He is all pine and I am apple orchard” and “Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” Shapes, colors, and shade appeal to one’s visual sense.
It is the repetition of identical consonant sounds in the same line. For example, the sounds /n/ and /t/is repeated in “And set the wall between us once again”. Sound /th/ is also repeated in the first and fifth lines of the poem. The sound /p/ is repeated in “To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean.”
It is the comparison between two different things that have something in common. The speaker in the poem compares the shape of the stones to the shape of bread and ball. He says, “, “And some are loaves and some so nearly balls.”