Mending Wall Summary

Mending Wall” is a poem by Robert Frost that questions the perpetuation of unexamined traditions.

  • The poem’s speaker describes the forces that corrode the wall between his property and his neighbor’s each winter, such as freezes and hunters.
  • The speaker and his neighbor meet each “spring mending-time” to repair the wall.
  • The speaker asks why they need a wall when neither owns animals. His neighbor replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
  • When the speaker presses further, the neighbor is unreceptive. He stands “like an old-stone savage armed” and repeats his father’s dictum: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Summary

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Last Updated on April 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” is a meditation told from the perspective of a landowner who joins his neighbor in repairing the stone wall that divides their properties. As the speaker notes in the opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” He notes the different forces at work against the wall, including the “frozen-ground-swell” that surges upward, scattering the stones from below, as well as hunters who strip away the stones to draw rabbits out of hiding. 

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As a result, every spring brings “mending-time,” and so the speaker calls on his neighbor and they meet to mend the wall. They walk along the wall, each man on his own side, fixing the broken spots as they go. They raise the fallen stones, some like bread loves and others like spheres that wobble and threaten to fall.

The speaker then makes an observation: his neighbor’s lot contains only pine trees; his own, only apple orchards. The wall is thus unnecessary, for there are no animals to contain or keep out. When the speaker mentions this fact, his neighbor simply replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Filled with the mischief of springtime, the speaker persists. Noting again the wall’s uselessness, the speaker says, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out.” When the speaker repeats the dictum of the opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” it seems that the speaker himself is an agent of that “something.”

The neighbor raises a stone in both hands, “like an old stone-savage armed”; to the speaker’s eye, “he moves in darkness.” Finally, the neighbor responds to the speaker’s objections, deferring again to his beloved saying, passed down from his father: “Good fences make good neighbors.” 

Analysis

Frost penned “Mending Wall” in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—without stanza breaks. Frost favored this form, using it in other well-known lyrics such as “Birches” and “Out, Out—.” The form lends itself to a combination of narrative and meditation. “Mending Wall” describes 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 the “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 the savage potential of humanity. 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.

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