History of the Text

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Last Updated on August 14, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

Publication History and Reception: “Mending Wall” was published in 1914 in Robert Frost’s second collection, North of Boston. Although Frost spent most of his writing life in New England, North of Boston was originally published in London, England, and wasn’t released in the United States until 1915. North of Boston was Frost’s first widely published collection and established Frost as a celebrated poet. “Mending Wall,” with its repeated aphorism “Good fences make good neighbors,” is one of the most popular poems from North of Boston. Frost’s poetry did not adhere to any specific literary movement, and over the course of his long career it was subject to varying levels of critical appreciation. Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes over the course of his life, and his work was immensely popular among the American public. Two years before his death, Frost read at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, evidence of his status as the nation’s most prominent poet.

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Bridging the Gap Between 19th- and 20th-Century Verse: Born in 1874, Robert Frost was influenced by the poetic conventions of the Victorian and Romantic eras. The poetry of the 19th century typically followed the formal constraints of rhyme, rhythm, and meter. When Frost came to artistic maturity in the early decades of the 20th century, those formal constraints were falling out of fashion. In the midst of World War I, the modernist movement came to prominence. Modernist poets built upon formal tradition through experimental poetic structures, seeking to capture sensation through language. Poets such as Ezra Pound, H.D., T. S. Eliot, and Marianne Moore wrote two-line lyrics, jagged poem sequences, and cerebral syllabic verse. They embraced colloquial speech, foreign phrases, and obscure allusions in their work. Modernists developed free verse, a pliable form that allowed them to reflect the fragmentation and chaos they saw in Western society.

  • A half-generation older than the modernists, Frost’s work contains elements of both 19th- and 20th-century verse. On the one hand, he always composed within—or in slight variation of—traditional forms. For example, “Mending Wall” consists of blank verse, a form with a long history. He playfully criticized free verse, once saying: “I’d as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” Frost is also known for his colloquial tone, often characterizing the speakers of his poems with distinct speech patterns. On the other hand, his concerns overlap with those of the modernists. His poetry considers the dubious claims of progress, the inherently tragic nature of human life, and the spiritual emptiness he found in the wake of modernity. Unlike typical modernists, Frost favors contained narratives and settings. He avoids the abstraction and abstruse allusions exemplified by Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

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