Mending Wall (1914)
The opening poem of Frost’s hailed second collection, North of Boston, “Mending Wall” is one of his most popular and celebrated poems. Much anthologized, the poem has almost come to symbolize Frost, for good or ill. On a visit to Moscow in 1962, nearly 50 years after the poem’s first publication, Frost said, “People are frequently misunderstanding [the poem] or misinterpreting it. The secret of what it means I keep.” Providing a bit of a hint, he also once explained that the poem contrasted two types of people: “I’ve got a man there; he’s both a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries. That’s man” (“On Taking Poetry”).
The poem opens with the statement, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and Frost’s readers are left to speculate for the remainder of the poem precisely what that something is. Winter does not love a wall, we learn in the second line; it creates gaps in the wall. The ground swells and the less securely placed boulders tumble off. The speaker explains that hunters are also sometimes responsible for the gaps. When they are chasing a rabbit to “please the yelping dogs,” but mostly themselves, they too have been known to send boulders tumbling.
The gaps are mysterious, however. The winter and the hunter are suggestions: No one ever actually hears them or sees the gaps made. It is not until spring, when the speaker and his neighbor ritualistically meet at the wall for mending, that they discover the gaps and set about filling them. The two walk together, the wall between them, replacing the boulders that have been left behind during the winter when there has been no cause to venture out to the wall.
Mending a wall takes work, but there is also a sort of sorcery to it. Sometimes one even needs to cast a spell to make the boulders balance just so: “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
A game is made of mending the wall; it becomes almost a country version of bowls. The speaker remarks that mending the wall essentially “comes to little more” than a game, since the wall itself is unnecessary. Neither neighbor has on his property anything that would disturb the other’s. One has pine trees and one has apple, but neither has livestock. As the speaker teasingly tells his neighbor: “My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines.” The wall mending is not about keeping things out, the speaker explains, raising the question whether it is about keeping things in.
The other neighbor is cryptic when the speaker, the forthright one, questions him about the purpose of the wall. He simply responds with his father’s old saying: “Good fences make good neighbors.” This becomes his mantra, the only words we hear from him. The speaker acts as though his own questions are about making mischief more than anything else, which suggests he already knows the answers to them. They are questions anyone might be expected to ask about such a wall, and not just in the mischief of spring; there is something more to it than that. The speaker wants to know why good fences make good neighbors. He is curious, inquiring, and reflective. The neighbor is cast as his opposite: someone who does not ask questions and is content to accept what has always been. He is unreflective, simply parroting back the phrase he learned from his father, carrying out his generation’s duty without question.
The speaker continues to question, despite his neighbor’s lack of interest. Frost teases as the speaker wonders, “to whom I was like to give offense.” He puns on the word offense, another part of the game in and of the poem. The speaker continues to want to know what the “Something there is” is, and he is not content to let it be. The most telling and coy lines are “I could say ‘Elves’ to him, / But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather he said it himself.” The suggestion is subtle, but the speaker clearly knows who undoes the wall. The lines suggest that the “elf” who leaves gaps in the wall is the neighbor himself, as if the speaker knows something about the neighbor he is unwilling to admit. At the least, it suggests that the speaker wants the neighbor to admit that deep down he also does not love the wall. The speaker suggests that the thing that does not love a wall is actually the very thing that does. It seems that the neighbor may take down the wall just so they can engage in the game of putting it back together again. A visual is presented for the reader: “I see him there / Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top,” and the speaker remarks, “He moves in darkness it seems to me, / Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” The sort of darkness his neighbor moves in is metaphorical. He may remove boulders in the dark, but he also moves in another kind of darkness. The neighbor moves not only in nature’s darkness but in the darkness that keeps him from more meaningful human connections. It is his lack of reflection, his lonely isolation of the sort encouraged by his father’s saying. Yet each spring he needs to meet with his neighbor once again to enact this ritual of building up together the wall that separates them.
Walls are not nature’s things; they are human things, created to keep neighbors apart, but in this case the wall also brings them together. There is a division here between what is civilized and what is natural, just as in Frost’s “The Middleness of the Road.” The neighbor personifies this division.
The two types of people are highlighted throughout but even more so in the irony of the second-tolast line: “he likes having thought of it so well.” It seems that those who move in darkness believe that their thoughts are original when they really are not. The individual is simply following what came before, seeing neither “out far or in deep,” being narrowed by custom, embracing it without question. The speaker is presented, in contrast, as the reflective and questioning freethinker.
The wall is being mended throughout the poem, but it is also a mending wall, doing its own mending. It is providing both characters with human contact as they wear their fingers rough by handling the stones. It takes a lot of effort to keep the wall there, but it seems to fulfill its complex function.
Frost wrote in a May 1932 letter to his friend Louis Untermeyer that he was “in favor of a skin and fences and tariff walls” (Cramer, 133).
Mark Richardson holds that the speaker is “obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies” (142). Richardson describes the line “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” as having a tone that “almost acquires an air of fingerwagging, country pedantry” (142). “Mending Wall” “at once acknowledges the limitations of walls (and aphorisms) and also their seductions and value,” he says (142).
“Mending Wall” was first published in North of Boston. Jeffrey Cramer reports that Frost once referred to the poem as “Building Wall” in a letter to Sydney Cox in 1915 (30). In Frost’s “On Taking Poetry,” his 1955 address to the Bread Loaf School of English, he said that the poem is “about a spring occupation in my day. When I was farming seriously we had to set the wall up every year. You don’t do that any more. You run a strand of barbed wire along it and let it go at that. We used to set the wall up. If you see a wall well set up you know it’s owned by a lawyer in New York—not a real farmer.” See WALLS.
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