The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Mending Wall” is a dramatic narrative poem cast in forty-five lines of blank verse. Its title is revealingly ambiguous, in that “mending” can be taken either as a verb or an adjective. Considered with “mending” as a verb, the title refers to the activity that the poem’s speaker and his neighbor perform in repairing the wall between their two farms. With “mending” considered as an adjective, the title suggests that the wall serves a more subtle function: as a “mending” wall, it keeps the relationship between the two neighbors in good condition.

In a number of ways, the first-person speaker of the poem seems to resemble the author, Robert Frost. Both the speaker and Frost own New England farms, and both show a penchant for humor, mischief, and philosophical speculation about nature, relationships, and language. Nevertheless, as analysis of the poem will show, Frost maintains an ironic distance between himself and the speaker, for the poem conveys a wider understanding of the issues involved than the speaker seems to comprehend.

As is the case with most of his poems, Frost writes “Mending Wall” in the idiom of New England speech: a laconic, sometimes clipped vernacular that can seem awkward and slightly puzzling until the reader gets the knack of mentally adding or substituting words to aid understanding. For example, Frost’s lines “they have left not one stone on a stone,/ But they would have the rabbit out of hiding” could be clarified as “they would not leave a single stone on top of another if they were trying to drive a rabbit out of hiding.”

In addition to using New England idiom, Frost enhances the informal, conversational manner of “Mending Wall” by casting it in continuous form. That is, rather than dividing the poem into stanzas or other formal sections, Frost presents an unbroken sequence of lines. Nevertheless, Frost’s shifts of focus and tone reveal five main sections in the poem.

In the first section (lines 1-4), the speaker expresses wonder at a phenomenon he has observed in nature: Each spring, the thawing ground swells and topples sections of a stone wall on the boundary of his property. In the second section (lines 5-11), he contrasts this natural destruction with the human destruction wrought on the wall by careless hunters.

The last sections of the poem focus on the speaker’s relationship with his neighbor. In the third section (lines 12-24), the speaker describes how he and his neighbor mend the wall; he portrays this activity humorously as an “outdoor game.” The fourth section (lines 25-38) introduces a contrast between the two men: The speaker wants to discuss whether there is actually a need for the wall, while the neighbor will only say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The fifth section (lines 38-45) concludes the poem in a mood of mild frustration: The speaker sees his uncommunicative neighbor as “an old-stone savage” who “moves in darkness” and seems incapable of thinking beyond the clichéd maxim, which the neighbor repeats, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Mending Wall Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In his essay “Education by Poetry” (1931), Robert Frost offers a definition of poetry as “the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.” “Mending Wall” is a vivid example of how Frost carries out this definition in two ways—one familiar, one more subtle. As is often the case in poetry, the speaker in “Mending Wall” uses metaphors and similes (tropes which say one thing in terms of another) to animate the perceptions and feelings that he wants to communicate to the reader. A more subtle dimension of the poem is that Frost uses these tropes ironically, “saying one thing and meaning another” to reveal more about the speaker’s character than the speaker seems to understand about himself.

When the speaker uses metaphor in the first four sections of “Mending Wall,” he does it to convey excitement and humor—the sense of wonder, energy, and “mischief” that spring inspires in him. Through metaphor, he turns the natural process of the spring thaw into a mysterious “something” that is cognitive and active: “somethingthat doesn’t love a wall,” that “sends” ground swells, that “spills” boulders, and that “makes gaps.” He playfully characterizes some of the boulders as “loaves” and others as “balls,” and he facetiously tries to place the latter under a magical “spell” so that they will not roll off the wall. He also uses metaphor to joke with his neighbor, claiming that “My apple trees will never get across/ And eat the cones under his pines.”

In the last section of the poem, however, the speaker’s use of simile and metaphor turns more serious. When he is unable to draw his neighbor into a discussion, the speaker begins to see him as threatening and sinister—as carrying boulders by the top “like an old-stone savage armed,” as “mov[ing] in darkness” of ignorance and evil. Through this shift in the tone of the speaker’s tropes, Frost is ironically saying as much about the speaker as the speaker is saying about the neighbor. The eagerness of the speaker’s imagination, which before was vivacious and humorous, now seems defensive and distrustful. By the end of the poem, the speaker’s over-responsiveness to the activity of mending the wall seems ironically to have backfired. His imagination seems ultimately to contribute as much to the emotional barriers between the speaker and his neighbor as does the latter’s under-responsiveness.

Mending Wall Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Frost. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Burnshaw, Stanley. Robert Frost Himself. New York: George Braziller, 1986.

Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Galbraith, Astrid. New England as Poetic Landscape: Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.

Gerber, Philip L. Robert Frost. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Lathem, Edward Connery. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Potter, James L. The Robert Frost Handbook. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Thompson, Lawrance Roger, and R. H. Winnick. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.