Teaching Approaches

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Characterizing the Speaker: Aside from a line repeated by the neighbor, “Mending Wall” consists of the meditations of the speaker. The speaker considers the damage to the wall caused by winter, the annual ritual of repairing the wall, and the neighbor’s behavior and belief about the wall. Characterizing the speaker offers an avenue into the themes of the poem.

  • For discussion: What can be known about the speaker, and what is left up for interpretation?
  • For discussion: What is the speaker’s attitude toward repairing the wall? How does this attitude develop over the course of the poem?
  • For discussion: How does the speaker’s attitude toward the wall change? What motivates the speaker to question the necessity of the wall?
  • For discussion: What is the speaker’s view of his neighbor? How would you describe their relationship? Why? Does their relationship change at all throughout the poem?
  • For discussion: Does the speaker agree with his neighbor that “good fences make good neighbors?” How do you know?

Determining Tone: “Mending Wall” provides an opportunity to guide students through the process of analyzing diction and point of view to describe tone. Tone emerges through the words of the speaker and, to a limited extent, the neighbor. The speaker’s tone is nuanced. His opinions about the events of the poem can seem straightforward, but a close reading provides a more layered picture. 

  • For discussion: Describe the diction in the poem. What key words stand out in your mind? How would you describe patterns in the diction? (How) Do they develop over the course of the poem?
  • For discussion: How do patterns in diction develop the speaker’s tone in the poem? Does the speaker’s tone change over the course of the poem? If so, how?
  • For discussion: What is the speaker’s attitude in the poem? Is it consistent, or does it develop along with the poem’s narrative?
  • For discussion: What is the neighbor’s tone? How are his thoughts and attitudes revealed in the poem? How does the neighbor’s use of repetition contribute to his tone?
  • For discussion: How does tone develop and reveal themes in the text?

Analyzing Symbolism: The world of “Mending Wall” rings with symbolic resonance. Its concrete characters and objects embody broader concepts. Examining the poem’s symbolism will give students a lens through which to approach the central themes of the poem.

  • For discussion: The wall is the most prominent object in the poem, and all of the actions—physical and intellectual—in the poem revolve around it. What ideas does the wall symbolize? What does the wall mean to the neighbor? What does it mean to the speaker? 
  • For discussion: To what extent do the characters in the poem act as symbols? What various attributes of human nature might the speaker, the neighbor, and the hunters symbolize?
  • For discussion: What other nouns act as symbols in the poem? (Consider the gaps in the wall, the spring, and the elves).
  • For discussion: How does symbolism develop themes in the poem? For each symbol you discuss, consider which themes it touches upon.

Theme Revealed Through Repetition: The poem’s opening line declares that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” This line is repeated later in the poem, implying a second reading or interpretation of the statement. Unpacking the layered meanings of “something” opens an avenue into a rich discussion about the theme of structure versus destruction, as well as the role played by ambiguity in developing that theme.

  • For discussion: What is, or could be, the “thing” referred to in “something”? (How) Do possible interpretations change between the first and second occurrences of the line?
  • For discussion: Another line repeated in the poem is the adage “good fences make good neighbors.” What are the possible meanings of the adage? What does this adage mean to the speaker? What does it mean to the neighbor? 
  • For discussion: Why does Frost choose to repeat both “good fences make good neighbors” and “something there is that doesn’t love a wall”? How does repetition support ambiguity? What is the relationship between the two statements?
  • For discussion: What are other examples of ambiguity in the poem? How does ambiguity develop and reveal the themes of the poem? To what extent are the moments of ambiguity unresolvable?
  • For discussion: How does your experience of reading the poem change when you try to resolve its ambiguity? Are its themes more or less accessible to you through that approach? Why or why not?

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

The Poem Contains Ambiguity and Nuance: In “Mending Wall,” layers of significance underlie the apparent situation and story. Parsing those deeper layers—the meaning of the wall, the nature of the tension between the two characters—can be challenging for students.

  • What to do: Drawing on the Teaching Approaches for inspiration, guide students into conversations about the themes and meanings at play beneath the poem’s surface.

The Poem’s Form is Unfamiliar: “Mending Wall” may present an unfamiliar form to some students. It is a lyric poem, but it uses colloquial diction and phrasing. It aligns to a traditional verse form, but the cadences are often prose-like and conversational. At a formal level, students may not know what to make of “Mending Wall.”

  • What to do: Offer students background information on the poem’s form. Discuss the role of blank verse in English-language drama and verse. Discuss, too, Robert Frost’s penchant for combining traditional poetic structures with regional subjects and speech patterns.

Alternative Approaches to Teaching “Mending Wall”

To have students consider this frequently taught poem from an alternative perspective, focus on the following in teaching the text:

  • Focus on playing with structure. Ask students to analyze and describe the structure of the poem, and then give them the opportunity to restructure it themselves. How would it look if organized into sentences and paragraphs? How would students combine the lines? (How) Does their understanding of the poem change when it’s restructured? How does structure develop tone and theme in the text?
  • Focus on point of view. How would the poem be different if it were told from the neighbor’s point of view or that of an omniscient speaker? How does the speaker’s particular point of view develop themes in the poem?
  • Focus on language as communication. The poem centers around a conversation between two neighbors. What are the strengths and weaknesses of language as a means for communication, as seen in the poem?

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Structure of the Text