Mending Wall Themes
The main themes in “Mending Wall” are human boundaries, order versus chaos, and man versus nature.
- Human boundaries: The poem explores and questions the need for boundaries between people.
- Order versus chaos: The order of the wall is placed in opposition to the chaotic forces that threaten it.
- Man versus nature: The wall represents an artificial imposition onto the natural world, which resists its presence.
Last Updated on May 18, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1116
In “Mending Wall,” Frost explores the social and relational boundaries between people, using the stone wall as a metaphor for such boundaries. The poem considers the question of whether it is necessary to maintain borders between people and offers an ambiguous answer to that question.
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The poem initially presents the mending of the wall as an unquestioned tradition that the speaker and his neighbor share. The speaker identifies the causes of the damage—winter weather, passing hunters—and seems to take it for granted that, just as they have done every year, he and his neighbor ought to meet to make the proper repairs. Indeed, it is the speaker who initiates this ritual.
However, the activity of repairing the wall is soon cast in a conflicting light. On the one hand, the men seem to enjoy each other’s company. As they place the fallen stones back in place, they “use a spell to make them balance.” Somewhat paradoxically, this sense of playfulness and cooperation is borne of an effort to reinforce the divide between the two men. On the other hand, the speaker soon begins to question the entire endeavor, referring to the mending as
just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
Here, the speaker subtly shifts into a mode of skepticism, questioning the need for a wall between two landowners who have only trees on their respective properties. When the neighbor responds to the speaker’s skepticism with the adage “Good fences make good neighbors,” this saying clarifies that the purpose of the wall is more abstract than physical. The nature of this boundary confounds the speaker, who remarks, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out.” The speaker cannot precisely identify this force that must be divided, contained, or walled off, but he soon glimpses the neighbor
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
There is a “darkness” or brutality to the neighbor that is related to his insistence on the maintenance of the wall. This “savage” quality is tied to his beloved adage, which he utters again in the final line of the poem. This passage is ultimately ambiguous in the way it presents the wall—and boundaries more generally. On the one hand, the speaker’s vision of his neighbor as “an old-stone savage” may underscore his own sense that the wall is pointless and that the neighbor’s adherence to the wall is regressive. On the other hand, the brutality and threat of violence that the speaker sees in his neighbor can be seen as an argument for the wall, which might serve as a safeguard against the darker potentialities of human nature.
Order Versus Chaos
The poem illustrates the tension between order and chaos, two elemental forces which are represented by the wall’s cyclical repair and destruction. The opening line draws attention to the constant presence of chaos, which the speaker refers to as “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Chaos takes several forms in the poem, the most obvious being inclement weather conditions, namely “the frozen-ground-swell” that sunders the wall from below, and the destruction done by hunters who pull apart the wall to draw rabbits out of hiding.
The speaker initially names these external sources of chaos, but as the poem goes on, it becomes clear that he himself embodies some of this chaotic potential. As he and his neighbor repair the wall from either side, the speaker realizes that the wall is pointless, separating pine trees from apple trees. Before he voices this realization, he reflects, “Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head.” Not only do these lines identify the speaker as part of that “Something” that “doesn’t love a wall,” they fittingly convey that a larger force is moving through him and animating him. That force—which can be identified as spring, mischief, or that which “doesn’t love a wall”—is fundamentally that of chaos.
Chaos is counterposed by order, embodied by the neighbor’s staunch adherence to the maintenance of the wall, to his father’s adage that “Good fences make good neighbors,” and to tradition itself. Order functions in several ways in this poem, pushing against the inevitable damages wrought by nature, establishing clear boundaries between the two characters, and upholding the ways of the past through respect, inertia, or a combination of both.
As with many aspects of this poem, the tension between order and chaos is left unresolved. Not only is it unclear whether the speaker ultimately finds the neighbor’s call for order compelling, it is certain that time will bring fresh destruction to the wall.
Man Versus Nature
“Mending Wall” explores the line between the human and natural worlds. The wall is fundamentally shown to be an artificial object that imposes precariously on the natural landscape. The poem’s earliest lines show how the wall’s existence is tenuous, given the natural forces working against it, freezing and swelling the ground underneath the wall and scattering its stones. Later, when the speaker and his neighbor repair the wall, the very laws of physics seem to be working against their efforts. The men “use a spell” to make the stones balance, shouting “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!” Even the environment which the wall traverses belies its presence—indeed, the speaker remarks that the adjacent swathes of pine and apple trees have no need for an intervening border. It should be noted that there are human forces, too, that threaten the wall’s artificial existence, including “the work of hunters” and the speaker himself. But even in such instances, human destructiveness is framed in terms of the natural: as the speaker says, “Spring is the mischief in me.”
Conversely, the neighbor’s efforts to repair the wall, which the speaker finds mysterious, are framed in terms that are unnatural: the neighbor “moves in darkness as it seems to me, / Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” Ultimately, the wall’s artifice lies in the way it apportions and simplifies the world. But the neighbor’s drive to uphold the wall is a desire to divide a natural world that knows no such divisions, and so the wall will remain embattled and provisional.