Mending Wall Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Mending Wall” is about two kinds of barriers—physical and emotional. More subtly, the poem explores an ironic underlying question: Is the speaker’s attitude toward those two kinds of walls any more enlightened than the neighbor’s?

Each character has a line summing up his philosophy about walls that is repeated in the poem. The speaker proclaims, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” He wants to believe that there is a “something,” a conscious force or entity in nature, that deliberately breaks down the stone wall on his property. He also wants to believe that a similar “something” exists in human nature, and he sees the spring season both as the source of the ground swells that unsettle the stone wall and as the justification for “the mischief in me” that he hopes will enable him to unsettle his neighbor’s stolid, stonelike personality. From the speaker’s perspective, however, when the neighbor shies away from discussing whether they need the wall, the speaker then sees him as a menacing “savage,” moving in moral “darkness,” who mindlessly repeats the cliché “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The speaker does not seem to realize that he is just as ominously territorial and walled in as his neighbor, if not more so. The speaker scorns the neighbor for repeating his maxim about “good fences” and for being unwilling to “go behind” and question it, yet the speaker also clings to a formulation that he repeats (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”) and seems unwilling to think clearly about his belief in it. For example, the speaker celebrates the way that spring ground swells topple sections of the stone wall. Why, then, does he resent the destruction that the hunters bring to it, and why does he bother to repair those man-made gaps? Similarly, if the speaker truly believes that there is no need for the wall, why is it he who contacts his neighbor and initiates the joint rebuilding effort each spring? Finally, if the speaker is sincerely committed to the “something” in human nature that “doesn’t love” emotional barriers (and that, by implication, does love human connectedness), why does he allow his imagination to intensify the menacing otherness of his neighbor to the point of seeing him as “an old-stone savage armed” who “moves in darkness”? To consider these questions, the speaker would have to realize that there is something in him that does love walls, but the walls within him seem to block understanding of his own contradictory nature.

Frost ends the poem with the neighbor’s line, “Good fences make good neighbors,” perhaps because this cliché actually suggests a wiser perspective on the boundary wall than the speaker realizes. This stone “fence” seems “good” partly because it sets a clear boundary between two very different neighbors—one laconic and seemingly unsociable, the other excitable, fanciful, and self-contradictory. On the other hand, this fence is also good in that it binds the two men together, providing them with at least one annual social event in which they can both participate with some comfort and amiability. To recall the two meanings of the title, the activity of mending the wall enables it to be a “mending wall” that keeps the relationship of these two neighbors stable and peaceful.