Analysis

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Last Updated on May 19, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 977

Frost penned “Mending Wall” in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—without stanza breaks. Frost favored this form, using it in other well-known lyric poems such as “Birches” and “Out, Out—.” The form lends itself to a combination of narrative and meditation. “Mending Wall” tells the story of two landowners mending the wall...

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Frost penned “Mending Wall” in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—without stanza breaks. Frost favored this form, using it in other well-known lyric poems such as “Birches” and “Out, Out—.” The form lends itself to a combination of narrative and meditation. “Mending Wall” tells the story of two landowners mending the wall that runs between their properties, but under the surface of the story, the speaker is busy investigating why the wall is broken and whether and why it ought to be mended.

The first word of Frost’s poem introduces a mystery to be solved. The “Something” that “doesn’t love a wall” is both ambiguous and impersonal. In the broadest sense, that “Something” is entropy: natural and human forces with no regard for the wall’s integrity. As the poem unfolds and the speaker begins to engage his neighbor on the question of the wall’s necessity, it becomes clear that the speaker himself is an agent of these entropic forces, a vessel for that “Something . . . that doesn’t love a wall.” The speaker acknowledges this truth, claiming that “Spring is the mischief in me” before questioning his neighbor’s dogmatic adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

In the final lines of the poem, the speaker glimpses another force at play, one which lends the wall its reason for being and validates the neighbor’s favorite saying. The speaker sees the neighbor hoist a stone, seeming to wield it as if he were “an old-stone savage armed.” There is a veiled, latent brutality in the neighbor that the speaker sees as “darkness… / Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” In the light of this vision, the wall—and the other conventions of civilization—seems a necessary measure to place against such savage potential. By the end of the poem, it is unclear whether the neighbor is conscious of this inner darkness that lends credence to his father’s adage. Either way, he repeats it with relish.

Frost’s diction and syntax in “Mending Wall” illustrate his lifelong interest in creating verse that reflects the sounds and rhythms of speech. In letters to John Bartlett in 1913 and 1914, written around the time he composed “Mending Wall,” Frost discusses the importance of capturing the natural music of speech, a quality which Frost refers to as “the sound of sense.” According to Frost’s poetics, verse should attempt to incorporate “sentence sounds” that are “not bookish, caught fresh from the mouths of people, some of them striking, all of them definite and recognizable.” But while Frost emphasizes the value of such unaffected sounds, he also acknowledges the poet’s role in using those sounds carefully, bringing them into the prosodic scheme of the poem with precise artistry. 

One clear example of this technique in “Mending Wall” is the line “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!” It is fitting—and perhaps expected—that this line of dialogue sounds like a real piece of speech, but consider, too, how neatly it conforms to the poem’s meter. The line’s first foot—“Stay where”—represents a common trochaic substitution, and the rest of the line consists of iambs. Thus, the line unfolds naturally within the poem’s flow of blank verse. These “sentence sounds” can also be heard clearly in phrases such as “The gaps I mean” and “It comes to little more,” which also maintain a perfect iambic rhythm. In all of these examples, the diction, syntax, and cadence of the language reflect a colloquial style of speech, and yet Frost succeeds in rendering these true-to-life phrases in what is in fact highly wrought poetry. This is one of the central paradoxes of Frost’s style: there is immense care and artistry behind language that sounds as unrefined as everyday speech.

In “Mending Wall,” Frost creates irony through the repetition of key phrases. Each of the two characters, the speaker and the neighbor, presents an important statement twice. And for each statement, its reiteration complicates and expands its meaning. The speaker’s key phrase is “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” which he offers as the opening line of the poem. In its initial context, the line is meant to evoke the various external forces that work against the wall: the winter’s cold weather, which causes the “frozen-ground-swell,” and the hunters who pull apart the wall’s stones to flush out rabbits. These constitute a clear “Something,” and so the line’s meaning is presumed to be complete. However, the speaker reiterates the line during his exchange with his neighbor, by which point the speaker has expressed doubts about the purpose of the wall. The speaker increasingly takes a stance against the wall, and so when he repeats “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the deeper significance of the line is revealed: the speaker himself contributes to that “Something.”

The neighbor’s key phrase is “Good fences make good neighbors,” and indeed it is the only piece of dialogue attributed to him alone. The first instance of the statement presents it as a piece of common, traditional wisdom. But after the speaker presses the neighbor on this point, wondering “Why do they make good neighbors,” the neighbor undergoes a subtle but profound transformation, temporarily appearing to the speaker as “an old-stone savage armed” as he lifts a stone to place upon the wall. Against the context of this newly perceived “darkness,” the neighbor again says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Here, the statement takes on a menacing tone, and the suggestion is that fences are needed as a bulwark against this strange “darkness.” In both of these reiterations, there is an irony in how the statements are altered in unexpected ways when they recur in new contexts, revealing the deeper meaning that always existed but was initially obscured.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

“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.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136

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.

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