Mending Wall Summary

Mending Wall” is a 1914 poem by Robert Frost that questions the perpetuation of unexamined traditions.

  • The poem’s speaker describes the forces that corrode the wall between his property and his neighbor’s each winter, such as freezes and hunters.
  • The speaker and his neighbor meet at “spring mending-time” to repair the wall.
  • The speaker asks why they need a wall when neither owns animals. His neighbor replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
  • When the speaker presses further, the neighbor is unreceptive. He stands “like an old-stone savage armed” and repeats his father’s dictum, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Summary

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Last Updated on May 19, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

Introduction

Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” was first published in 1914 in Frost’s second volume of verse, North of Boston. The poem, which draws on Frost’s own experiences living in New Hampshire, confronts the tensions produced by society, as well as the conflict between humanity and the natural world. “Mending Wall” has become one of Frost’s most widely read and studied poems, exemplifying his lifelong thematic concerns and his signature stylistic blend of colloquial cadence and prosodic precision.

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Summary

Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” is a meditation told from the perspective of a landowner who joins his neighbor in repairing the stone wall that marks the line between their adjacent properties. As the speaker notes in the opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” He describes the different forces at work against the wall, including the “frozen-ground-swell” that surges upward, toppling and dispersing the stones from below and creating wide gaps. There is also the destructive activity of local hunters who, accompanied by their dogs, strip away the stones from the wall to force rabbits out of hiding. The speaker has never seen the damage being wrought, but every spring he sees the results.

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Thus every spring brings “mending-time.” One day, the speaker calls on his neighbor, and they meet to mend the wall. The two men walk along the wall, each on his own side, fixing the broken portions of the wall as they go. They raise the fallen stones, some like bread loves and others like spheres that wobble and threaten to fall. In such cases, the speaker and his neighbor jokingly cast spells on the stones, telling them to stay put “until our backs are turned!” In general, the speaker characterizes the work as difficult but done in a playful spirit.

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Latest answer posted March 2, 2018, 8:00 am (UTC)

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The speaker then makes an observation: his neighbor’s lot contains only pine trees; his own, only apple orchards. Because there are no animals to contain or keep out, the wall is unnecessary. The speaker mentions this fact, humorously remarking that his apple trees will not cross the property line and eat the neighbor’s pine cones. The neighbor curtly replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Feeling that he is filled with the mischief of springtime, the speaker persists in his line of skeptical questioning. Noting again the wall’s uselessness, the speaker says, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out.” When the speaker then repeats—out loud now—the dictum of the opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” it seems that the speaker himself is an agent of that “Something.” The speaker cannot identify precisely what that “Something” is. He suggests that he could name “Elves” as the culprit, but he knows that this would not be a precise answer. Moreover, he wants the neighbor to say what it is, given his insistence on maintaining the wall.

The speaker then sees the neighbor in an altered, almost dreamlike light. The neighbor raises a stone in both hands, “like an old-stone savage armed.” To the speaker’s eye, “he moves in darkness,” one that is not associated with the shadows of the woods. Finally, the neighbor responds to the speaker’s objections, deferring again to his beloved saying. He takes pleasure in this favored adage, which, it turns out, is passed down from his father. But there is also a sense of obedience to his adherence to it, a suggestion that he would not dare “go behind” his father’s wisdom. The final line of the poem ends with the neighbor’s repetition of “Good fences make good neighbors.”

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Themes