Mending Wall

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Mending Wall

Robert Frost 1914

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary

Themes

Style

Historical Context

Critical Overview

Criticism

Sources

For Further Study

First published in Robert Frost’s second collection, North of Boston, in 1914, “Mending Wall” is a narrative poem that presents an encounter between two neighbors whose property line is marked by a stone fence. Each spring, they cooperate in repairing the damage the winter weather has caused to it. Although the speaker of the poem claims to believe the wall is unnecessary, he is clearly ambivalent about its presence, since he also initiates the repair. His neighbor, on the other hand, strongly asserts his desire to maintain the wall, repeating the line, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Throughout the poem, the wall functions as a metaphor, indicating the necessity of simultaneous connection and separation between human beings. Although individuals long to connect with one another, a connection that is too close or boundaries that are indistinct can be dangerous. Yet, disruption of these boundaries is probably inevitable, since the “frozen-ground-swell” that damages the wall, though it occurs annually, is never observed. The neighbors can only maintain their relationship through conscious attention to the wall that separates them.

Author Biography

Born in San Francisco, Frost was eleven years old when his father died and his family relocated to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where his paternal grandparents lived. In 1892, Frost graduated from Lawrence High School and shared valedictorian honors with Elinor White, whom he married three years later. After graduation, Frost briefly attended Dartmouth College, taught at grammar schools, worked at a mill, and served as a newspaper reporter. He published a chapbook of poems at his own expense and contributed the poem “The Birds Do Thus” to the Independent, a New York magazine. In 1897 Frost entered Harvard University as a special student, but left before completing degree requirements because of a bout with tuberculosis and the birth of his second child. Three years later, the Frosts’ eldest child died, an event that led to marital discord and that, some critics believe, Frost later addressed in his poem “Home Burial.”

In 1912, having been unable to interest American publishers in his poems, Frost moved his family to a farm in Buckinghamshire, England, where he wrote prolifically, attempting to perfect his distinct poetic voice. During this time, he met such literary figures as Ezra Pound, an American expatriate poet and champion of innovative literary approaches, and Edward Thomas, a young English poet associated with the Georgian poetry movement then popular in Great Britain. Frost soon published his first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will (1913), which received appreciative reviews. Following the success of the book, Frost relocated to Gloucestershire, England, and directed publication of a second collection, North of Boston (1914). This volume contains several of his most frequently anthologized pieces, including “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” and “After Apple-Picking.” Shortly after North of Boston was published in Great Britain, the Frost family returned to the United States, settling in Franconia, New Hampshire. The American editions of Frost’s first two volumes won critical acclaim upon publication in the United States, and in 1917 Frost began his affiliations with several American universities as a professor of literature and poet-in-residence. Frost continued to write prolifically over the years and received numerous literary awards as well as honors from the U.S. government and American universities. He recited his work at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and represented the United States on several official missions. Though he received great popular acclaim, his critical reputation waned during the latter part of his career. His final three collections received less enthusiastic reviews, yet they contain several pieces acknowledged as among his greatest achievements. He died in Boston in 1963.

Poem Text

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:                      5
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,             10
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.                     15
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.             20
Oh, just another kind of outdoor 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.
My apple trees will never get across                      25
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it                30
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,              35
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.             40
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good                     45
      neighbors.”

Poem Summary

Lines 1-4

Here the wall is introduced as a primary symbol in the poem. Whatever it is that protests against it, however, is vague and perhaps unnameable. This something is powerful, though, since it can create “gaps even two can pass abreast.” Presumably, the speaker and his neighbor could step together from one side of the fence to the other, but they don’t consider doing that.

Lines 5-9

In these lines the speaker contrasts the natural, yet almost secret, destruction of the wall by a “ground-swell” with the intentional destruction created by hunters. The speaker recognizes and understands their motive.

Lines 10-11

The speaker reinforces the idea that these breaks created by nature are more mysterious than those made by the hunters. This action cannot be observed, though the effects are consistent year after year.

Lines 12-16

Here, the speaker’s ambivalence becomes apparent. Although he will attempt to present the desire for walls as belonging solely to his neighbor, he is the one who arranges to repair the wall. The separation between the two is emphasized in these lines, as they walk on opposite sides of the wall and as they are each responsible for replacing the stones that have fallen on each one’s side. While they are performing this act together, they do not actually assist each other.

Lines 17-19

The tone becomes a bit more playful in these lines, as the farmers attempt to cast a “spell” on the stones. This idea will be reinforced later when the speaker thinks about “elves.”

Lines 20-22

Although the speaker wants to present this activity as insignificant, as “just another ... game,” he also reveals that the task has its difficult physical aspects.

Lines 23-26

In this section, which occurs near the center of the poem and explicitly illustrates the poem’s central tension, the speaker attempts to present himself as desiring a closer relationship with his neighbor. He does this with a joke that is founded on a practical observation. Because farmers often use fences to keep their livestock separated, this fence should be unnecessary—pine trees and apple trees will not become confused with each other, nor will one eat the fruit or seeds of the other.

Line 27

In this line, the neighbor speaks for himself; he presents himself directly rather than through the eyes of the speaker. His personality is conveyed in this one line, which will be repeated later, but which is the only thought we receive from the neighbor. Rather than respond to the speaker’s practical observation, the neighbor responds more abstractly, with a metaphor. Sometimes, he seems to suggest, the characteristics of our physical relationships directly influence our emotional relationships. Although he never states what he believes constitutes a good neighbor, he implies that some clear separation is essential.

Lines 28-31

Again, the speaker considers trying to provoke his neighbor with practical objections, but he never makes this statement out loud.

Lines 32-35

In this section the speaker also begins to speculate abstractly, and the symbolic significance of the wall becomes apparent as he uses the phrase “walling in” and “walling out.” The double function of a wall is addressed, for not only are outsiders prevented from entry, but insiders are trapped inside. The speaker considers the possibility that walls “give offence” as he himself seems to be slightly offended, but he never reaches a conclusion about what it is within himself that is either walled in or walled out. Nor does he say that he himself doesn’t love a wall, only that “Something” doesn’t. We are meant to assume that the “something” is internal to the speaker, but his refusal to clearly acknowledge this attitude conveys his own ambivalence.

Lines 36-38

In these lines, the speaker again reveals his ambivalent attitude. He thinks about being playful, suggesting that “Elves” destroyed their wall, but he also longs for the neighbor to be playful, and besides, the speaker can’t be entirely playful himself; he knows “it’s not elves exactly.”

Lines 39-42

Here the speaker presents his neighbor as more mysterious and primitive than himself, relying on a simile to convey his observation: “like an old-stone savage armed.” This simile is appropriate because the farmers are literally using stones as their tools, but stone tools have the connotation of “savage.” He implies that the neighbor is also using the stones as weapons; he is “armed.” In a sense, then, the fence becomes a weapon, even if its purpose is primarily defense. The speaker then moves from thoughts of the Stone Age to thoughts of the Dark Ages, where darkness functions as a symbol for a lack of insight that is understood as progress. His darkness is more than literal, more than the shade provided by the trees, but also emotional in his refusal to become connected.

Lines 43-45

In these lines, the speaker indicates that the neighbor will not take a risk, because he will not reveal the reasons for his attitude beyond the fact that it reflects his father’s attitude. Because the line “Good fences make good neighbors” has been repeated, and because it forms the last line of the poem, it becomes highly significant. The reader will remember it as the speaker remembers it, and perhaps the reader will have to puzzle out its meaning as the speaker attempts to do.

Themes

Alienation and Loneliness

Using the poem’s central image of the stone wall, the speaker explores the reasons why people create boundaries around themselves. He believes

Media Adaptations

  • Robert Frost reads 23 of his poems, including “Mending Wall,” on the Caedmon recording Robert Frost Reads His Poetry, which was recorded in 1956 at Frost’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Robert Frost Reads, an audio tape of the same recording session at Frost’s Cambridge home, is available from HarperAudio.

that building a wall can “give offense,” or alienate one’s neighbor. Frost portrays the speaker and his neighbor as friendly with each other and able to work together, but essentially alienated from one another. The speaker does not see the necessity of maintaining the wall, apart from the fun of getting together to fix it; his neighbor, however, insists upon repairing it, because the ritual of repair is a tradition. The poem’s opening line—“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”—implies that walls are unnatural, and that the vague “Something” is a force of nature that destroys the walls people build. This force seems not to want people to be separated from one another and breaks apart the wall: it “sends the frozen-ground-swell under it / And spills the upper boulders in the sun.” Going against this natural force, the speaker and his neighbor will never truly know each other: as the speaker says, “We keep the wall between us as we go.” Even as the two men are separated by the physical presence of the wall, they also alienate each other with their contrasting attitudes toward the wall, which illustrate a difference in their views toward life in general. While the speaker is imaginative and able to play with the image of the wall, his neighbor is unoriginal and can only repeat his own father’s words about the wall: “‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” To the speaker, the neighbor seems “like an old-stone savage” who “moves in darkness”—a primitive man who does not think or question. Nevertheless, the joint activity of repairing the wall does “‘make good neighbors’” in the sense that it brings them together in a shared activity.

Topics for Further Study

  • Investigate the status of family farms in the United States today. Where are family farmers concentrated geographically, and how large are their farms on average, in terms of acreage and income?
  • Look at the work of other major poets who were Frost’s contemporaries in 1914: Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Carl Sandburg. How do their subject matters and styles compare with Frost’s? Can you account for Frost’s wider popularity with the reading audience?
  • From 1912 to 1914, Frost took his family with him to live in England. It was during this time that he wrote the poems published in North of Boston, including “Mending Wall.” What major social and political issues were being faced in England and Europe during these years that Americans did not have to confront?
  • Consider the neighbor’s repeated statement in “Mending Wall”: ‘“Good fences make good neighbors.’” Why does the neighbor think good fences make good neighbors? How does the poem show us that good fences can make good neighbors in other ways?

Custom and Tradition

The speaker and his neighbor have a custom “at spring mending-time” of meeting at the wall that divides their properties “to walk the line / And set the wall between us once again.” The speaker initiates this activity each year and enjoys it in a playful way: the wall’s restoration is “just another kind of outdoor game, / One on a side. It comes to little more” than this for him. Yet he questions the wall’s usefulness, seeing no real need for it: “My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines.” Although the speaker is able to challenge tradition, his neighbor cannot break away from the custom of maintaining fences between properties. Cherishing a tradition his father once carried out, the neighbor will not question the need for the wall. Unoriginal and unthinking in the speaker’s eyes, the neighbor “moves in darkness,” the darkness of blindly following custom without considering why he does so. The speaker points out that his neighbor “will not go behind his father’s saying ... ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” He tries to tease his neighbor into looking below the surface of his father’s words to ask why good fences make good neighbors, but the neighbor prefers simply to follow tradition for its own sake.

Creativity and Imagination

The speaker’s spirited imagination enables him to animate the natural world and have fun with the tedious job of repairing a stone wall while his duller neighbor can only see that the wall needs repair. The neighbor is unimaginative: he does not think too deeply about why he is repairing the wall and is only able to repeat his father’s words, “‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” While the neighbor views walls as necessary dividers of property, the speaker questions the usefulness of walls and contemplates their various meanings. He presents the “Something ... that doesn’t love a wall” as mysterious and whimsical: for instance, the “something” could be “‘elves,’” but “it’s not elves exactly.” The speaker sees the stones from the wall as “loaves” and “balls,” objects of domesticity and play, and he says that the ritual of fixing the wall is “just another kind of outdoor game, / One on a side.” He does not take this job of mending the wall too seriously, claiming that he and his neighbor “have to use a spell to make [the stones] balance: ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’” Mischievously, the speaker tells his neighbor that “My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines,” but the neighbor does not appreciate the humor in this remark. The contrast between the speaker’s imaginative view of the world and his neighbor’s duty-bound view helps to build the poem’s theme of alienation.

Order and Disorder

The annual ritual of meeting to repair the stone wall dividing their properties represents the speaker and his neighbor’s attempt to reestablish order in a disorderly world. The mildly named “Something ... that doesn’t love a wall” is a powerful force of nature that is able to move boulders and destroy human handiwork. The fact that the wall-mending ritual is an annual event speaks of the futility of this activity: each spring, the two men fix the wall, and each winter “Something” breaks it apart again.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1913: The International Exhibition of Modern Art, held at the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory in New York City and known popularly as the Armory Show, shocked the art world with avant-garde works by Modern artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, and Marcel Duchamp. Conservatives who saw the Armory Show thought that the artists whose work was represented there were joking or were frauds.

    1971: Picasso was honored on his ninetieth birthday with an exhibition of his work at the Louvre in Paris. The presentation represented the first time that a living artist’s work was shown at the Louvre.

    1990s: The work of once-avant-garde artists such as Picasso and Matisse is now so popular that it appears on such mass-produced items as wrist-watches, T-shirts, and computer mouse pads.

  • 1913: Women in the United States did not have the right to vote. In May, a large parade of woman suffrage supporters, 10,000 strong, marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City, hoping to gain attention for their cause.

    1996: For the November elections, nearly 68 million American women were registered voters.

  • 1913: Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, introduced into his factories the first assembly line for building automobiles, making production faster and more efficient.

    1914: More than half a million Ford Model T cars were being driven around the world.

    1998: In the months of July, August, and September alone, U.S. sales of Ford cars and trucks totaled 993,723.

  • 1914: World War I (known at the time as The Great War) began, resulting ultimately in the destruction of the great empires of Europe.

    1990: The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe— made up of 32 European countries, plus the United States and Canada— convened in Paris to create the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. The vision for this New Europe is based upon an agreement of mutual respect and cooperation among the participating countries.

Yet the speaker and his neighbor, needing to reestablish order, “set the wall between us once again,” knowing that their order is fragile and will not last.

Style

“Mending Wall” is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse, a popular form in English. An iamb is a metrical foot containing two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. In iambic pentameter, then, each line will consist of ten syllables. This is easiest seen if a line is diagrammed:

The work   / of hunt   / ers is   / an oth   / er thing.  

When such lines are read aloud, the rhythm can be clearly heard and the pattern recognized by the ear. The repetition of metrical verse is one of the qualities that make such poetry pleasurable.

Historical Context

Time of Transition

The years just prior to the Great War, now known as World War I (1914-1918), encompassed broad social and political change. Essentially, what is often referred to as “the old order”—imperialism, formality, rigid class boundaries—was dying away as a new order of society emerged. While aggressions among various European nations simmered and flared, anticipation of an all-out war grew. Under the threat of war, Europeans seemed to feel that old, long-held constrictions could be loosened; and while Americans did not feel the threat of war as immediately as the Europeans, by 1913 the world knew that everything familiar was about to change dramatically. In major cities around the world, suffragists campaigned for women’s right to vote; a sensuous new dance known as the tango titillated and shocked polite society; women’s fashions became more revealing and bold, with tight skirts and nearly transparent fabrics; and the art world presented wondrous new images that the average viewer could not understand. The middle class gained unprecedented mobility with Henry Ford’s Model T automobile, and jazz and ragtime music were growing in popularity. The wealthy and powerful viewed the rise of Socialism as a threat. This proved to be a prophetic response to a political philosophy that would come to help shape the new, postwar Europe.

Modernism in Art and Music

With the Armory Show in New York and the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece The Rite of Spring in Paris, 1913 was a year in which Modernism in the arts announced itself to the world. Artistic originality and creativity defined the years just prior to the start of World War I. During the decade before the war, Cubism emerged in painting, expressing an abstract vision of the world. During this period, the arts in general—music, literature, architecture, fine arts—reflected a growing interest in technology. The Armory Show, first held in a New York armory and officially known as The International Exhibition of Modern Art, was a large-scale presentation of works by Modern European and American artists. The exhibition shocked its audience with paintings and sculpture that broke away from traditional, familiar Romantic forms. The work of Impressionists, Symbolists, Postimpressionists, Fauves, and Cubists was unlike any artwork people had ever seen. Cubist painter Marcel Duchamp’s famed work Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, one of the more famous of the works exhibited in the Armory Show, has been described as looking like “‘an explosion in a shingle factory.’” The hugely influential Armory Show traveled around the United States and was viewed by close to 300,000 Americans.

Nineteen thirteen was also an explosive year musically. With the opening performance in Paris of the revolutionary ballet The Rite of Spring, scored by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, and produced by Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev, Modernism in music had arrived. The opening night audience, used to traditional ballets such as Swan Lake and Giselle, reacted with outrage to Stravinsky’s work, so startling to them were the dissonances and violent rhythms. Stravinsky’s composition, described by many as anarchic, intends to evoke the fervor of primitive human beings taking part in a pagan ritual.

Critical Overview

Like many of Robert Frost’s poems, “Mending Wall” has received significant attention from critics who refuse to agree with one another regarding its interpretation and meaning. Although most critics recognize the motif of separation and connection as typical of Frost, they disagree vehemently about the overall success of the poem. In his book Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist, John C. Kemp claims that the speaker in this poem illustrates Frost’s “characteristic role as an outsider who is both disturbed and fascinated by an environment he can neither change nor fully accept.” A. Zverev, in an article published in 20th Century American Literature: A Soviet View, describes the metaphor of the wall as “a rich image which serves to convey notions of true and false in the mind of the people.” Zverev believes that the strength of the poem lies in its attention to exact detail and, especially, in its ability to convey the resistance many people feel to separation.

Critic Allen Tate, on the other hand, writing in Robert Frost: Lectures on the Centennial of His Birth, describes this poem in a tone that can only be described as bitingly sarcastic. “And now the famous wall that has a fine, domestic, and civic effect upon the people it divides,” Tate begins, already indicating that his critique will be negative. Later in the article, he continues, “I hope my rather feckless paraphrase of this poem is at least as tiresome as the poem itself. I have a little more to say about it. Good neighbors are good to have, but good fences do not make them good neighbors. Here we have Frost’s perilous teetering upon the brink of sentimentality.” Tate is accusing Frost here of making an association that is too easy to be accurate. He suggests that though it may be tempting to believe that “Good fences make good neighbors” automatically, human relations are in fact much more complicated and cannot be reduced to such a pat phrase.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Frost said that “‘Mending Wall’ takes up the theme where ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ [sic] in A Boy’s Will (1913) laid it down.” “The Tuft of Flowers,” deals with the theme of men working together, in spirit if not in actuality.
  • “After Apple-Picking,” another poem in North of Boston, like “Mending Wall,” portrays working and thinking as united. The act of picking apples, a farm chore not unlike mending stone walls, leads the speaker in “After Apple-Picking” to think about the chore and what it means.
  • One of the dramatic dialogues in North of Boston, “The Death of the Hired Man” explores the theme of home and human connection through the characters of a farmer, his wife, and their old hired hand. The poem is an excellent example of Frost’s skill at capturing spoken voices.
  • John Jerome’s 1996 collection of essays, Stone Work: Reflections on Serious Play and Other Aspects of Country Life, is a thoughtful treatment of building a stone wall among other aspects of rural life.
  • Building Stone Walls (1986) by John Vivian is a how-to guide to building several types of stone walls.
  • Rock Fences of the Bluegrass (Perspective on Kentucky’s Past), by Carolyn Murray-Wooley, Karl Raitz (contributor), and Ron Garrison (photographer), is an historic exploration of the rock fences that run throughout Kentucky’s Blue-grass country and the masons who built them. The book contains photographs, drawings, and lists of masons’ names.

Criticism

Craig Dworkin

Craig Douglas Dworkin is an assistant professor of English at Princeton University. In the following essay, Dworkin traces a series of encoded words through Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” in order to expose the complexity of language the poet’s conversational and narrative style seems to belie.

Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” like much of his poetry, invites a range of conventional interpretations; readers may be tempted to meet its homespun wisdom with moralizing humanist pieties, or to match its smug wit with equally condescending judgements about the two characters and their psychological portraits. Moreover, if the regionalist New-England setting suggests that we read “Mending Wall” as a realistic description of a rural landscape, the poems structured oppositions and the symbolic weight of the “wall” also encourages a host of allegorical readings. On any of these counts, however, the poem comes up short. Despite its air of profound judgement, the poem never rises above platitudes and simple-minded ideas, and its language wavers between goofy faux-colloquialisms and stilted inversions. But that language, however poorly handled, demonstrates an infinite resourcefulness. The inventive play of language itself, in fact, restores “Mending Wall” to the status of poetry and saves it from becoming the doggerel to which Frost’s poems seem to aspire.

Frost’s wall requires attention because of “the gaps,” and the gaps in his poem deserve attention as well. In his study the Semiotics of Poetry, theorist Michael Riffaterre argues that poetic texts are created when a gap opens between a word and a text. Poems, in his view, are constructed around absent centers (in the same way that a doughnut, say, takes shape around an empty hole). The absent center of the poem is a single unwritten word or phrase that does not actually appear in the poem, but around which the poem is written. Riffaterre calls that encoded, unwritten core the “matrix.” Around this core, the rest of the poem presents variations of the matrix, offering equivalents to the key word or phrase but never mentioning the specific word

“...[W]e must learn to read the letters and words that are absent from the page but ever-present in the logic of a poem’s language. That language always says more than it seems, and its confessions are worth listening to.”

or phrase itself. Just as the wall in Frost’s poem warps and strains and breaks because of the empty swell beneath it, the words that do appear in a poem—according to Riffaterre—deform themselves around the unspoken matrix. As the language of the poem avoids the matrix, detouring around it and rewriting it in other words, ungrammatical and awkward phrases result. Such grammatical disruptions, like the stilted phrases in “Mending Wall,” are clues to the presence of the matrix. The poetic text thus “functions something like a neurosis,” in Riffaterre’s psychoanalytic terms: “as the matrix is repressed, the displacement produces variants all through the text, just as the repressed symptoms break out somewhere else in the body.”

With an analogy to the way in which an anagram encodes a word by rearranging its letters, Riffaterre calls the encryption of the matrix a “hypogram” (hypo “under” + gram “writing”); the hypogram is quite literally the subtext of the poem, underwriting the text on the page without actually appearing as part of that text. The word “hypogram,” moreover, derives directly from the Greek hypographein, which denotes a signature, and this etymology nicely underscores the fact that the hypogram in “Mending Wall” is indeed a signature. Another name for the opening image of “the frozen ground swell,” of course, is a frost, and so even without an autograph or title page, (Robert) Frost has already signed the poem in its second line. Indeed, such signatures are common in Frost’s oeuvre, in which references to snow and ice recur; the autumnal or winter landscapes that so often serve as the background for his poetry frequently provide an opportunity for explicit inscriptions of the author’s name. Close textual analyses like Riffaterre’s are usually seen as ways of avoiding the author; rather than concerning themselves with biographical information (whether Frost ever mended walls with his neighbor, for instance), close readings focus on the text itself and the relationship between the words on the page. In “Mending Wall,” however, where the name of the poet is encoded into the machinery of textual production, such textual details turn out to be the very means of recovering the author’s presence.

The speaker in “Mending Wall” is walking “the line” (line 13), both figuratively and literally in terms of lines of verse, between revealing and concealing the matrix. The phrase “the gaps I mean,” isolated at the end of the ninth line, might be taken not as a corrective explanation but rather as an assertive confession; the speaker, if not the author himself, is acknowledging that his meaning is located in the gap between what is actually written (“frozen ground swell”) and what is encoded (frost). That encoded inscription is still too near the surface, however, and we should not stop until we have reached the matrix’s deeper level—akin to permafrost. The complete name for the type of frost that would swell the ground is “rime-frost.” The pun is exact. In fact, although now chiefly archaic or poetic, “rime” is an alternate spelling for “rhyme.” In Frost’s first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will, only one out of the thirty poems included failed to use a fixed pattern of end-rhymes. When North of Boston —the book that includes “Mending Wall”—was published one year later, in 1914, only three of the seventeen poems employed such rhyme schemes. Frost would return to end-rhymes throughout his career (indeed already by the time of his next book, Mountain Interval, published in 1916, Frost would revert to explicit rhyme schemes in more than three-quarters of poems included in the volume). With North of Boston, therefore, Frost was making a deliberate move away from rhyme, and so the placement of “Mending Wall” as the first poem in the volume makes perfect sense. Opening that largely unrhymed collection of verse, “Mending Wall” announces the book’s stylistic change by not only suppressing the rhyme associated with Frost but also the rime associated with frost.

“Rime” points not only to the poem and its sounds, however, but also to the specifics of Frost’s “Mending Wall.” A rime is also a chink or cleft, and so the explicit references to “gaps” are one way that the poem rewrites the rime matrix. That matrix continues to be rewritten, in fact, not only with equivalents but also with a series of reversals that skirt the central hypogram like two poles of an electric motor. To “rim” means to wall, and to “wall,” in turn, means to boil up—exactly the inverse of the frozen ground swell’s “rime.” The vocabulary of Frost’s poem returns again and again, in various ways, to the matrix.

If such punning displacements around the matrix seems far-fetched, recall the more obvious shifts with which “Mending Wall” encodes key words. The speaker declares: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offence.” With a slight shift across word boundaries (what linguists refer to as a transsegmental drift), “offence” contains the homophonic equivalent “a fence”—or, in other words, precisely what the persona would give if he were to build a wall. Such encoding may also be a clue to reading the cryptic and exceedingly bizarre statement: “I could say Elves to him, / But that’s not it exactly, and I’d rather / He said it for himself.” What could it mean to exclaim “Elves,” and if the word he wants is not exactly “Elves,” then what is it? The emphasized “himself” that concludes the sentence suggests one possibility: “[s]elves” is not exactly “elves,” but it is very close, and the yearning for connection between isolated selves is precisely what “doesn’t love a wall” and “wants it down.” The matrix that structures the opening of the poem suggests another possibility, however; the word “delves” is also close to, but not exactly “elves,” and delves are small cavities under the ground—or, in other words, exactly what the “frozen ground swell” would form once the rime-frost had melted “in the sun,” leaving only empty cavities when the two neighbors find the swollen ground “at spring mending-time.” Opening a hole with a swell might be graphically depicted by an open letter “o” gaping in the middle of the word itself to form “s[o]well,” and ultimately—in the context of all of these encodings—one might even read “so well,” the emphasized adverb of the penultimate line of the poem, as not just the destructive swell that threatens the wall but also the tool with which the neighbor makes the fences for which he is advocating and staking a claim; a “sowel” is the stake used in fence making.

If these examples are still not sufficiently obvious to prompt the readers’ excavation of the matrix rime-frost, the text also gives two further hints to the reader to be on the lookout for such textual encodings. Those delves, the subterranean cavities left by the frozen ground swell, are crypts, and so the rime-frost is quite literally encrypted. Moreover, the persona’s invocation of a “spell” summons a similar reference to encryption. From the fourteenth century on, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “to spell” originally meant “to read ... letter by letter; to peruse, or make out, slowly or with difficulty.” To spell, that is, originally meant not the correct formation of a word, but simply to read individual letters rather than entire words. To spell Frost’s own poem, then, would be to puzzle over words like “elves” and “offence” and play with their individual letters. When Frost wrote “Mending Wall,” the figurative use of “spell” would still have carried the meaning of guessing something secret or discovering something hidden, and the word would have explicitly denoted decipherment. Just as the speaker in “Mending Wall” has to use a spell to make the stones balance, “we have to use a spell” to make the poem balance with its matrix. Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that as a noun, “spell” denotes not only a hint or intimation, but also “a splinter, chip, or fragment.” So “spell,” therefore, hints directly at the matrix, balancing the rime (in the sense of a chink) left by those fragments of stone broken off from the wall.

Having spelled out these transformations, it should be clear that the closest reading of the words themselves need not be an activity that disregards the thematic, referential content of a poem. In fact, we must undertake the effort of those letter-by-letter readings in order to better access the complexity of references woven into a poetic text; and to do so we must learn to read the letters and words that are absent from the page but ever-present in the logic of a poem’s language. That language always says more than it seems, and its confessions are worth listening to. Indeed, as a way of [w]ending [w]all, a “frost,” one should remember, is also a synonym for a literary failure. Whether Frost ultimately avoids that frost, as the poem avoids its matrix, depends on how carefully we mind the gaps he means but cannot mend.

Source: Craig Dworkin, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.

Bruce Meyer

Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer comments on the success of “Mending Wall” as an example of a narrative poem.

In an essay for The Reaper magazine titled “How to Write Narrative Poetry,” poets Robert McDowell and Mark Jarman suggest that there are ten considerations that must be addressed in a successful narrative poem. These ten points are: a beginning, a middle, and an end; observation; compression of time; containment; illumination of private gestures; understatement; humor; a distinct sense location or setting; memorable characters; and a compelling subject. As a narrative poem, Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” passes The Reaper test in several ways by presenting the reader with a situation of a man repairing a simple stone wall with his neighbor. What emerges from the poem is not simply a well-told story or even a detailed sense of the characters and their experiences, but a statement on the nature of human relations, boundaries, and individual identity.

The poem opens with a commonplace observation of how a wall winters and shifts as a result of freezing and thawing. Frost translates this observation into a universal truth so that the simple act of mending a wall becomes a gesture of supreme importance. The explicit quality of understatement is evident in this process. Frost sticks to his subject with an emphasis on direct speech—clear and unpoetic diction that adds a deceptive sense of the mundane to the action; yet the aphoristic structure of the opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” stays with the reader as a maxim that borders on an axiom. The sense of universal truth, or at least applicable observation that can be assumed into the shape of a law or saying, is an essential part of the poem’s containment. The wall mending, the action between the neighbors, is all the world that Frost needs to portray in order to establish a philosophical statement on human relations. This containment, the unified limitation of both time and space and the focus on a very simple and uncomplicated action, is yet another means by which Frost uses understatement to his advantage.

The containment qualities of “Mending Wall,” coupled with the sense of understatement and expression of a large truth in a very small way, is achieved through a very limited but well-defined setting. The delineated differences between the two fields, “He is all pine and I am apple orchard,” is a modest yet distinctive expression of the setting. This is a world of boundaries where the setting is more than a backdrop to the meaning of the action and the poem—it is a metaphor for separateness, and the reason for the action is the maintenance of the distinction between two very unique worlds. Frost strikes a note of wry and subtle humor when his wall mender observes, “My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines.” To this, the neighbor offers a rebuttal in the form of a proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The separation of the two farms and the two worlds within the poem is further enhanced by the strange quality of separation within the communication process between the two characters. One offers a joke. The other replies with a piece of unquestioned wisdom that he repeats, almost for rhetorical emphasis, at the conclusion of the poem. The communication between the two characters is understated, to say the least, but the message is conveyed elliptically that not only is this a poem about the separation of farms, but the separation of perspectives and modes of expression.

The differences between the two men, articulated in the act of possessing a wall and maintaining it for the sake of neighborliness, are a source of humor in the poem. Both men are focused on the same action and working toward the same end, yet their end is separateness: “To each the boulders that have fallen to each. / And some are loaves and some so nearly balls / We have to use a spell to make them balance.” The irony of this situation is that they appear to be working not only against the destructive properties of climatic changes, but against unseen forces that they both acknowledge, a key element of the subtle humor that Frost builds into the poem. There appears to be an element of luck-of-the-draw involved in the work: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him / But that’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather / He said it for himself.” It appears that both men are thinking the same thing: that something in nature is working against them, that although they consciously and logically dismiss an animate presence in nature that destroys the wall, they both jokingly admit to its possible existence. Both utter “spells” to make the stones balance and stay in place once they have moved on to the next piece of the fallen barrier: “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

This reading of nature as containing animate possibilities suggests that for the narrator, at least, Frost has created a structure of an inner life, a psychology that is essential to creating a memorable character. The narrator muses to himself: “I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head: / ‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it / Where there are cows? But there are no cows.” The sense of character that delineates each of the two men is established in different ways. For the narrator it is through this sense of the inner self observing and speculating on his opposite. For the neighbor, character is established by the process of understatement, so that he is composed with what he does not say and appears to the reader as a quiet individual of few words.

Characterization, in a process that is drawn more from the structures of fiction than from poetry, is further established through Frost’s eye for minute detail and “illumination of private gestures.” The gestures are not simply the details of the wall-mending process, although they contribute significantly to the characterizations Frost is trying to convey; they are the means by which the reader pictures and remembers the two individuals. The narrator focuses on his neighbor’s gestures so that his character is created not through what he says but through what he does: “I see him there / 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.” Here is a man of few words and many actions. The narrator, on the other hand, is a dreamer. His character is developed through what he thinks, rather than through what he says or does. He spends most of the poem watching the other man work, honoring his reticence, and imagining a number of speculative scenarios that he fails to implement either as conversation or observation. Frost, therefore, has not only created characterizations of two men in search of separateness; he has created two separate and fully fleshed entities that speak of both differences and of poles of human types, and it is for these reasons that they are memorable to the reader.

What is, perhaps, the most important aspect of “Mending Wall,” and what categorizes it under McDowell and Jarman’s classifications as a successful narrative poem, is the work’s sense of drama. As in the case of classical theater, such as that identified by Aristotle in The Poetics, the drama of the poem is conveyed through a unity of time and place. “Mending Wall” focuses on a single time and a single place, and the actions could, plausibly, take place within the “real time” of the poem. This may appear to contradict the nature of narrative: after all, a narrative is, by definition, a sequence of connected events that form a single concept or story. In “Mending Wall,” there is one event that is composed of small gestures. But what Frost is doing is making the gestures into events in themselves by focusing on the minute actions of the process, so that the narrative is a sequence of actions rather than a sequence of events. It is the

“The wall mending, the action between the neighbors, is all the world that Frost needs to portray in order to establish a philosophical statement on human relations.”

enlargement of each minor action that contributes to the drama and to the success of the poem as a narrative. As a narrative poem in the McDowell and Jarman definition, “Mending Wall” does compress time, but only in a very minimal sense because the actions are so detailed and so precise.

The one outstanding question that remains to be answered is does “Mending Wall” have a compelling subject? Frost seems to be conscious of the need to make the action into an allegory, and he moves toward this through the uttering and repeating of maxims such as “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and “Good fences make good neighbors.” The point of the poem appears to be the demonstration of wisdom as a result of practice rather than the discovery of a truth through a process, a revelation, and a denouement. What the reader must remember is that wisdom, the central thrust of the poem, is a result of repeated processes and accumulated observations. The “spring mending-time” that Frost mentions is an annual necessity and part of regular farm maintenance—a calendar event that can be foreseen. The destructive forces of nature can also be foreseen. It should be remembered that the books of Wisdom in The Bible, such as Ecclesiastes, are not stories of individuals discovering the truth as much as they are acknowledgments of the way things work. The presence of wisdom rather than discovery is at the root of the neighbor’s tenacious hold on his maxim, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Wisdom is something to be accepted, not debated, and the narrator observes of his neighbor, “He will not go behind his father’s saying, / And he likes the thought so well / He says it again.”

What is compelling about “Mending Wall” is that it challenges the convention of the narrative

“‘Mending Wall’ dramatizes the playfully imaginative man who has his world under full control ....”

poem as a process (seen in fictional structures) of problem, struggle, climax, resolution, and denouement. Instead, Frost’s poem presents the concept of two individuals confronting and accepting human truths. Their persistence, in both the action and the ideas that the action expresses, is in itself compelling and engaging.

Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.

Frank Lentricchia

In the following excerpt, Lentricchia compares the characters of the narrator and his neighbor in Frost’s “Mending Wall.”

“Mending Wall” is the opening poem of Frost’s second volume, North of Boston. One of the dominating moods of this volume, forcefully established in such important poems as “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” “The Black Cottage,” and “A Servant to Servants,” and carried through some of the minor pieces, flows from lives lived grimly, from the tension of having to maintain balance at the precipitous edge of hysteria. “Mending Wall” stands opposed to such visions of human existence—or, more precisely put, to existences that are fashioned by the neurotic visions of central characters like the wife in “Home Burial,” the servant in “A Servant to Servants.” “Mending Wall” dramatizes the playfully imaginative man who has his world under full control, who in his inner serenity is riding his realities, not being shocked by them into traumatic response.

The opening lines evoke the coy posture of the shrewed, imaginative man who understands the words of the farmer in “The Mountain”: “All the fun’s in how you say a thing.”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends a frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

It does not take more than one reading of the poem to understand that the speaker is not a country primitive who is easily spooked by the normal processes of nature. He knows very well what it is “that doesn’t love a wall.” His fun lies in not naming it, and in not naming the scientific truth he is able to manipulate intransigent fact into the world of the mind where all things are pliable. The artful vagueness of the phrase “Something there is” is enchanting and magical, suggesting even the hushed tones of reverence before mystery in nature. And the speaker (who is not at all reverent toward nature) consciously works at deepening that sense of mystery:

The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they would have left not one stone on a
      stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

The play of the mature, imaginative man is grounded in ironic awareness, and must be, for even as he excludes verifiable realities from his Active world the unmistakable tone of scorn for the hunters comes seeping through. He may step into a fictive world but not before glancing back briefly at the brutality that attends upon the play of others. Having paid for his imaginative excursions by establishing his ironic consciousness, he is free to close the magic circle cast out by his playful energies, and thereby close out the world reported by the senses (“No one has seen them made or heard them made”). In knowing how to say a thing in and through adroit linguistic manipulation, the fiction of the something that doesn’t love a wall is created, the imaginative reality stands formed before him, ready to be entered.

But, like the selves dramatized in a number of other poems by Robert Frost, this persona would prefer not to be alone in his imaginative journey:

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor 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.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

If the fact of a broken wall is excuse enough to make a fiction about why it got that way, then that same fact may be the occasion for two together to take a journey in the mind. For those who would like to read “Mending Wall” as political allegory (the narrator standing for a broad-minded liberal internationalism, the thick-headed second speaker representing a selfish super-patriotism) they must first face the line “I let my neighbor know beyond the hill.” “Mending Wall” has nothing to do with one-world political ideals, good or bad neighbor policies: on this point the title of the poem is helpful. It is a poem that celebrates a process, not the thing itself. It is a poem, furthermore, that distinguishes between two kinds of people: one who seizes the particular occasion of mending as fuel for the imagination and therefore as a release from the dull ritual of work each spring and one who is trapped by work and by the past as it comes down to him in the form of his father’s cliche. Tied as he is to his father’s words that “Good fences make good neighbors,” the neighbor beyond the hill is committed to an end, the fence’s completion. His participation in the process of rebuilding is, for him, sheer work because he never really plays the outdoor game. The narrator, however, is not committed to ends, but to the process itself which he sees as having non-utilitarian value: “There where it is we do not need the wall.” The process itself is the matrix of the play that redeems work by transforming it into the pleasure of an outdoor game in which you need to cast spells to make rocks balance. Overt magic-making is acceptable in the world of this poem because, governed as we are by the narrator’s perspective, we are in the fictive world where all things are possible, where walls go tumbling for mysterious reasons. Kant’s theory that work and the aesthetic activity are antagonistic, polar activities of man is, in effect, overturned, as the narrator makes work take on the aesthetic dimension. The real difference between the two people in the poem is that one moves in a world of freedom because, aware of the resources of the mind, he nurtures the latent imaginative power within himself and makes it a factor in every-day living, while the other, unaware of the value of imagination, must live his unliberated life without it. And this difference makes a difference in the quality of the life lived.

The narrator of “Mending Wall” does not give up so easily: he tries again to tempt his neighbor to enter into the fictive world with him and to share his experience of play:

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself....

All to no avail, however: the outrageously appropriate pun on “offense” falls on deaf ears; he won’t say “elves” (who may be defined as those little folk who don’t love a wall); he will not enter the play world of imagination. The neighbor moves in “darkness,” our narrator concludes, “like an old-stone savage armed.” The characterization is philosophically precise in the logic of the tradition of post-Kantian aesthetics. For the recalcitrant and plodding neighbor is a slave to the rituals of the quotidian, a primitive whose spirit has not been freed by the artistic consciousness that lies dormant within. It is the play spirit of imagination, as Schiller suggests, which distinguishes the civilized man from his cave-dwelling ancestor—that “old-stone savage” who moved in “darkness.”

Source: Lentricchia, Frank, “Experience as Meaning: Robert Frosts’s ‘Mending Wall,’” The CEA Critic, vol. 34, no. 4, May 1972, pp. 9-11.

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For Further Study

Barry, Elaine, Robert Frost on Writing, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

A collection of letters, interviews, lectures, and other writings in which Frost explores his beliefs on writing and literature.

Poirier, Richard, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

An excellent in-depth examination of Frost’s poetry.

Pritchard, William H., Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

A biography of Frost that explores the relationship between his work and his life.

Thompson, Lawrance, Robert Frost: The Early Years, New York: Holt, 1966.

This is the first volume in Thompson’s authoritative three-volume biography of Frost; this volume covers Frost’s life from his birth in 1874 through his return to the United States after a two-year sojourn in England. When the biography was first published, it changed the way readers viewed Frost and his work, portraying him not as a simple, gentle-natured poet but as a powerful man with a potent dark side.

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