Mending Wall

Context

The poem 'Mending Wall' was published in 1914 by Robert Frost. Robert Frost lived in a farm in New Hampshire when he wrote this farm, suggesting that he himself had to regular maintain a wall. Perhaps suggesting that the poem is autobiographical. The whole poem is focussing on a surface level about two neighbours maintaining the wall on their land, which is separating themselves from each other. However, on a deeper level the poem is questioning the set boundaries of society. There main techniques being used to convey the meaning of the poem: extended metaphors, syntactic constructions and rhetorical questions

The Wall Represents the Boundaries Between Men

  • 'And on a day we meet to walk the line/And set the wall between us once again.' 'And' here is very biblical in tone, because it suggests inevitable and almost symbolic (like in parables) incidents between men which happen through the ages. As much as this poem is specifically about these two men, it is also about all people on a symbolic level. 'To walk the line' suggests the thin line which divides and maintains the balanced relationship between people, and between people and nature. However, the idea of setting the wall 'between us' is very negative, as though an unwelcome is being created there.

  • 'We have to use a spell to make them balance./ 'Stay where you are until our backs are turned.' Again here the idea of nature as subtly magical reappears, as though these divisions can't quite be created by human endeavours alone and are always at the mercy of nature. 'Stay where you are until our backs are turned' could suggest that he doesn't actually care if the stone falls down again, it simply has to stay while they are looking at it. It's the impression of division and order that they want, not the actual usefulness of this division.

  • 'One on a side. It comes to little more.' In this line the overt meaning of the poem is most seen. The line itself is divided by caesura, like the men. The idea of of two people being on opposite sides of a wall and separated is seen to come 'to little more', as though there is no grander meaning in this.

  • 'There where it is we do not need the wall:/ He is all pine and I am apple orchard.' The speaker, despite the apparent division between people and nature, now sees himself and his neighbour as trees. They are unavoidably different, and yet both are part of the natural world. They cannot harm each other, they are simply separate. Both have good qualities - pines are evergreen and strong, whereas apples bear fruit and blossoms, but are deciduous. Symbiosis is then encouraged, allowing them to have the best qualities of each, perhaps.

  • 'Good fences make good neighbours.' The neighbour then quotes his father's old saying, suggesting that respecting boundaries is crucial for people to get along. However, it seems contradictory, as fences preclude real neighbourly relationships. And is again ironic, as the the only time these people see each other is when they are mending the wall.

  • '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.' Look at the rather negative depiction of the neighbour. He is strong and powerful, the stone 'grasped firmly' emphasizing his physical strength. Yet this power is 'savage armed', as though primitive and unsuited to society, despite the fact that what it is doing is maintaining societal boundaries. Frost might be saying in this poem that society is necessary, but the boundaries society uses are regrettable, even if they are necessary. Shows his uncertainty as to whether these boundaries are a good thing. The idea that he moves 'in darkness' shows his negative and primitive portrayal, following the instincts laid down by previous generations, without true illumination.

  • 'He will not go behind his father's saying.'

 

Nature vs the Wall

  • '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'. Poem starts extremely ambiguously, showing the narrator's own inability to express what part of nature (here personified) doesn't 'love a wall'. Syntax is inverted partly to to keep the blank verse, partly to show the writer's own confusion and inability to articulate what he is thinking - he seems uncertain of his own thoughts in the poem. That 'something' then 'sends the frozen-ground-swell under it', which spills into the next line using enjambment, mirroring the way water pools under it in winter and then expands, breaking the wall apart. The presentations of it spilling 'the upper boulders in the sun' creates an atmosphere of nature's defiance, pushing the 'boulders' which separate men into full illumination. 'Upper' and 'sun' use assonance to create a sense of beauty in nature's own work.

  • 'And makes gaps even two can pass abreast' - Symbolically, this suggests that nature creates a space for unity between men, who had once tried to separate themselves. 'Even' shows that writer's astonishment at this power of the natural world.

  • 'Hunters [...] left not one stone on a stone,/But they would have the rabbit out of hiding/To please the yelping dogs'. Yet now Frost sees the breaking of the wall from possibly a difference perspective. On the one hand, he sees hunters as responsible for the breaking wall - people who work within the natural world. 'Not one stone on a stone' expresses a subtle alarm and disappointment in the destruction that the hunters create. The hunters' destruction seem in some ways pointless and gratuitous, seeking the knock down the wall purely to 'please the yelping dogs'. In some ways, Frost does a view that the wall is protective, at least of 'the rabbit', and so to some degree must be rebuilt.

  • 'The gaps I mean,/No one has seen them made or heard them made,/But at spring mending-time we find them there.' It now becomes clear that Frost is unaware of how these gaps appear, symbolic then of the fact that gaps that keep him and the other man apart, which are slowly erased over the seasons. (There's an irony in the poem that the wall keeps the men apart, yet it is also what brings them together every spring to fix it. In some ways the wall is separation, in others it actually brings people together in order to maintain features of society. Sense that nature in the seasons then both separates men and also is responsible for bringing them together again. Destruction is creation and vice-versa.)

  • 'But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather/He said it for himself.' Frost raises the idea that supernatural beings might bring down the wall, using irony to suggest that this can't be true, but he also can't raise the actual possibility of what has brought it down, wanting to wait for the other man to say it. It's implied that what brings down the wall is the natural lack of separation of things, but also the men's need to come together in the spring. There is an implied friendship which necessitates the destruction and thus the mending.

Ambiguous Perspective of the Speaker

  • 'I let my neighbour know beyond the hill' - Firstly it is ironic that the narrator himself lets the neighbour know that the time to mend the wall, even though he doesn't approve of it. This shows the irony that it is in the rebuilding of the wall that Frost establishes any sort of relationship with his neighbour.

  • 'My apple trees will never get across.' He shows the unnecessary nature of the wall, but also how he might never 'get across' to his neighbour or influence his point of view.

  • 'Why do they make good neighbours?' - The speaker shows his doubts about whether what they are doing is the right thing. It shows his intelligence, how he does not simply follow his instincts and what other people think of as right.

  • 'Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out'. This itself is ironic. On the one hand, Frost suggests that people haven't considered enough what they are depriving themselves of by creating the boundaries between them, or what they may be hiding. Yet Frost himself is building this wall while he is asking this, showing his fallibility as a member of mankind. Doesn't follow his own ideals here, showing that he himself is flawed and uncertain about what is right.

 

Structure

  • Structure of the poem as one long stanza mirrors the wall, but varied structure mirrors the gaps in the wall, which come together at the end.

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