“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.”
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.
(The entire section contains 1046 words.)
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