Mending Wall Mending Wall By Robert Frost (1914) “Mending Wall” is vintage Robert Frost. Vintage to the degree that Frost has often referred to the work as his second favorite poem. Within its lines are the simplicity of language and subject, realism and imagery, humor and cynicism that combine to reveal the meditative insight that marks the poetry of Robert Frost. An annual ritual of mending a stone wall that divides the adjoining property of two New England neighbors is the setting for a sharp contrast in perceptions. As in most Frost poems, as the ordinariness of the activity is specifically described one quickly perceives that the undertaking has much larger implications.
It becomes the setting for Frost, through his speaker, to reflect on the ambivalent nature of walls both physical and psychological. One is then led to explore a deeper question of whether such walls are meant to exist and prevail in nature – whether in the physical or the better angels of our own. The speaker’s neighbor views the activity as an annual duty performed of necessity with dutiful and prideful regard to inherited custom. He labors as heir to a mindset that must define boundaries in order to avoid conflict. He goes about his task apparently not analyzing the genesis of the walls disrepair, without introspection or internal debate of the pragmatic need for the division. He is motivated by his father’s admonition of traditional rural wisdom that continues unquestioned but has seemingly outlived its application.
“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 neighbors.’ ” In contrast, the speaker goes about the same mending of the wall supposing those things both ethereal and of human origin which seem to assault the permanence and might question the very purpose of the wall. Through the process he muses the ambivalent nature of walls and divisions; that which defines also inhibits. That which protects also isolates. That which keeps in – will also keep out. Is there indeed need to define and thereby isolate that which requires or desires neither option? “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 offense.” Frost, in recognizing the paradoxical nature of a wall, expresses that one should be cautious before construction and thoughtful in its perpetuation. But one should be cautious not only due to the innate characteristics of a wall, but also because evidence seems to indicate that such duplicitous barriers may be contrary to a larger and more significant natural order of things.
“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; . . .” One is struck by the realization that while the ground swell is largely the cause for the toppling of the boulders, it is not there where Frost affixes final blame. He makes claim that it is sent. It is sent by the Something.
Frost supposes the existence of a force that sends a conscious emotion, a ground-swell, that not only topples boulders off New England fences but that would also rightly choose to topple the barriers that humankind chooses to create around and within ourselves. It is a force that would choose liberation, not containment, of the spirit and the soul. Whether heavenly or metaphysical, that spiritual force also appears to Frost to be assisted by, if not embodied in, the course of unfettered human activity. “The work of hunters is another thing: / . .
. / Where they have left not one stone on a stone, / But they would have the rabbit out of hiding: . . .” Through the course of human history walls have been breached in pursuit: in pursuit of truth, of knowledge, of equality, of freedom. No doubt inspired by the same Something that sends a determined and purposeful ground-swell.
It is ironic that the speaker who ponders these questions, suspicious of the need, actually initiates the annual ritual of mending the wall. Perhaps he reveals an impish motive when he tells us, “Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, / One on a side. It comes to little more,” and, “Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head: . . .
” No doubt there is a certain element of play and not just a little curiosity in the annual piquing of “an old-stone savage,” as is the timeless wont of a poet to blind and mindless conformity. But while there appears to be little appreciation and some scorn, (literally and symbolically), for the neighbor’s seemingly unenlightened, “moving in darkness” with all who find security in their walls, there is a novel bond in their differences. Two farmers, two men in stark contrast whose natures and perceptions are so vastly different, if not opposed. One would question whether they ever exchanged any more than a passing wave throughout the year: year after year. Yet the wall that divides them brings them together at least on that one day annually to reacquaint and perhaps to further know and understand. The wall that defines their possessions grants the opportunity to overcome their walls of indifference and their difference.
And therein lies a true irony. The neighbor’s worn clich is born out in a very unique sense; “Good fences make good neighbors.” Poetry.