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Mending Wall

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English Literature

‘Mending Wall’ by Robert Frost is a narrative poem about two neighbours who meet annually to repair their shared wall. The poem uses metaphors about nature to explore the importance of borders or boundaries between people.

Overview’ Mending Wall’
Written in1914
Written byRobert Frost
Form/StyleNarrative poem
MeterIambic pentameter
Poetic devicesIrony, enjambment, assonance, symbolism
Frequently noted imagery Walls, spring, frost, nature
Key themesBoundaries
Meaning The speaker and his neighbour meet in spring every year to mend their shared wall. The speaker questions the necessity of the wall, whereas his neighbour goes about his work holding onto his father’s tradition.

‘Mending Wall’ context

Let’s explore the literary and historical context of this iconic poem.

‘Mending Wall’ literary context

Robert Frost published ‘Mending Wall’ in North of Boston (1914) relatively early in his career. As with many of Frost’s poems, ‘Mending Wall’ appears simple and easy to understand on the surface, and his consistent descriptions of nature make it very pleasant to read. However, reading between the lines gradually unveils layers of depth and meaning.

‘Mending Wall’ is a conversation between neighbours with different world views. The speaker holds a modernist view of the world as he questions traditions and possesses an uncertain tone about the world around him. On the contrary, the speaker’s neighbour has quite a traditional worldview and holds tight to his father’s traditions.

Scholars have always had difficulty assigning Frost to a specific literary movement. His extensive use of natural settings and simple folk-like language has led many scholars to exclude him from the modernist movement. However, a strong case can be made for ‘Mending Wall’ being a modernist poem. The speaker’s uncertain and overly questioning tone displays modernist characteristics. The poem is infused with irony and allows the reader to reach their own conclusions, offering no definitive answers to the plethora of questions it raises.

‘Mending Wall’ historical context

Robert Frost wrote ‘Mending Wall’ at a time when technology was rapidly evolving, and America’s population was continuing to diversify during the industrial era. The need for a large labour force accelerated urbanisation throughout America. This led to conflict between people with vastly different world views. Frost was aware of this issue and ‘Mending Wall’ comments on it.

In the poem, a conversation between neighbours with opposing world views occurs while the pair is fixing a wall. This suggests that working together to improve society is a beneficial form of labour.

The poem also comments on the importance of physical borders between people in order to maintain peace. ‘Mending Wall’ was written during World War I when countries went to war over freedom and their right to maintain borders.

Mending Wall’ poem

  1. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

  2. That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

  3. And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

  4. And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

  5. The work of hunters is another thing:

  6. I have come after them and made repair

  7. Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

  8. But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

  9. To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

  10. No one has seen them made or heard them made,

  11. But at spring mending-time we find them there.

  12. I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

  13. And on a day we meet to walk the line

  14. And set the wall between us once again.

  15. We keep the wall between us as we go.

  16. To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

  17. And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

  18. We have to use a spell to make them balance:

  19. ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’

  20. We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

  21. Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

  22. One on a side. It comes to little more:

  23. There where it is we do not need the wall:

  24. He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

  25. My apple trees will never get across

  26. And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

  27. He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

  28. Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

  29. If I could put a notion in his head:

  30. ‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

  31. Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

  32. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

  33. What I was walling in or walling out,

  34. And to whom I was like to give offense.

  35. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

  36. That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,

  37. But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

  38. He said it for himself. I see him there

  39. Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

  40. In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

  41. He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

  42. Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

  43. He will not go behind his father’s saying,

  44. And he likes having thought of it so well

  45. He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

‘Mending Wall’ analysis

And? What do you think of the poem so far? Was it easy to understand on the first read?

‘Mending Wall’ summary

The speaker starts the poem by suggesting there’s a force opposed to the use of walls. This force seems to be mother nature as the ‘frozen ground’ causes the stones to ‘topple off’. Another ‘force’ against walls is the hunter who dismantles them to catch rabbits.

The speaker then meets with his neighbour to mend their wall together. Each of them walks on their side of the wall, and they converse while carrying out the work. The labour is intense and causes their hands to become callous.

What do you think the speaker is implying when he talks about their hands becoming calloused with labour? Is this a good or a bad thing?

The speaker begins to question the reason for their hard labour. He argues that they each have different types of trees, and there aren’t any cows to cause disruption, so there’s no need for a wall. The neighbour responds with the adage, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ and says nothing more.

The speaker tries to change his neighbour’s mind. He reasons that the existence of a wall may offend someone, but he settles on his initial argument that there is a ‘force that doesn’t love a wall’. The speaker is convinced that his neighbour lives in ignorance, saying he moves in ‘deep darkness’, comparing him to an ‘old-stone savage’. The neighbour has the final word and ends the poem by repeating the adage, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’.

mending wall, nature stone wall grass study smarterA stone wall, Pixabay

What do you think? Do good fences make good neighbours? Think of this in a geopolitical sense as well.

‘Mending Wall’ form

Mending Wall’ is composed of a single, 46-line stanza written in blank verse. The large body of text can appear intimidating to read at first glance, but Frost’s story-like quality draws the reader deeper into the poem. The central focus of the poem is the wall, and the meaning behind it is built upon right up to the final line. This makes the use of a single stanza feel appropriate.

A common characteristic of Frost’s poetry is his use of simple vocabulary. The lack of difficult or complex words in ‘Mending Wall’ gives the poem a strong conversational element, mimicking the neighbours’ interaction.

‘Mending Wall’ section analysis

Let’s break the poem down into its sections.

Lines 1–9

Frost begins the poem by pointing out a mysterious force that ‘doesn’t love a wall’. The examples that follow suggest that the mysterious force is mother nature. The brutal winter causes ‘the frozen-ground-swell under it’, resulting in gaps that allow ‘two [to] pass abreast’. Nature’s act of destruction ironically creates the possibility for two companions to ‘pass abreastin the form of a gap.

Frost then distinguishes hunters as another force that destroys walls. The hunter’s purpose for dismantling the wall is purely out of self-interest – they want to lure a ‘rabbit out of hiding’ to feed their ‘yelping dogs’.

Note the contrast between a ‘natural’ force (mother nature) and a man-made force (the hunters). What is the poem implying about man versus nature?

Lines 10–22

The speaker comments that the gaps appear almost magically as nobody ‘has seen them made’. The idea of a mystical force that destroys walls is further developed.

The speaker then meets his neighbour to rebuild the wall together. Although this is a joint effort, the pair ‘keep the wall between’ them as they work. This small detail is important because it signifies both parties’ acknowledgement of and respect for their personal boundaries and property rights.

Another important detail to note is that they each work on ‘boulders that have fallen to each’. Although this is a collaborative effort, they only labour on their side of the wall, showing that each man takes responsibility for his own property.

The idea of a magical or mystical force is developed yet again when the speaker comments on the odd shape of the fallen boulders and how they need a ‘spell to make them balance’. The spell itself employs personification: the speaker demands that the boulders’ Stay where [they] are …’ while being aware that he’s speaking to an inanimate object.

The speaker states that the rough, manual labour wears their ‘fingers rough’. This situation could be considered ironic since the act of rebuilding the wall is slowly wearing the men down.

What the speaker and neighbour perform when building the wall each year is rather monotonous. Some scholars write that this act is similar to the myth of Sisyphus, whose punishment for his sins was to push a boulder up a hill, which would always roll back to the bottom, for eternity. What do you think? Is this act of mending a fence together over and over again a futile act?

Lines 23–38

This section of the poem begins with the speaker expressing his curiosity about the purpose of the wall. He then gives reasons why they ‘do not need the wall’. His first reason is that he has an ‘apple orchard’, whereas his neighbour has pine trees, meaning that his apple trees will never steal the cones from the pine tree. The speaker’s perspective can be seen as potentially self-centred because he doesn’t consider that maybe his neighbour wishes to keep his garden separate to maintain his individuality.

The neighbour responds simply with the traditional adage that ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ The speaker doesn’t seem to be satisfied with this response, and he goes on to brainstorm an explanation to change his neighbour’s mind. The speaker further argues that there aren’t any cows to cross onto each other’s property. He then considers that the existence of the wall may ‘give offence’ to someone.

The speaker goes full circle and returns to the first line of the poem, Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’. It can be said the speaker isn’t convinced by his own arguments and resorts to that seemingly unexplainable force. He considers that maybeelves’ are the force destroying the walls but then dismisses this idea because he wants his neighbour to see it ‘for himself’. It seems that the speaker has come to the realisation that he can’t change a persons’ perspective of the world.

Two things to think about:

  • Think about the difference between apple trees and pine trees. Could they represent each neighbour’s differing views? If so, how?
  • How does the use of the word ‘Elves’ tie in with the poem’s themes?

Lines 39–45

In the final section of the poem, the speaker observes his neighbour working and tries to understand who he is. It seems that the speaker thinks his neighbour is ignorant and backwards as he describes him as an ‘old-stone savage’. He sees his neighbour as being in literal and metaphorical ‘darkness’ because he can’t think for himself and won’t abandon ‘his father’s saying’.

After all of the elaborate arguments presented by the speaker, the poem ends quite simply with the adage, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’.

the mending wall, fence in the woods, studysmarterA fence in the woods, Pixabay

‘Mending Wall’ literary devices

Literary devices, also known as literary techniques, are structures or tools that authors use to give structure and additional meaning to a story or poem. For a more detailed explanation, check out our explanation, Literary Devices.

‘Mending Wall’ irony

‘Mending Wall’ is full of irony that makes it difficult to pin down what the poem is trying to express. Walls are usually created to separate people and protect property, but in the poem, the wall and the act of rebuilding it provide a reason for two neighbours to come together and be sociable citizens.

As the two men mend the wall, their hands wear down and become rough from handling the heavy rocks. In this case, the irony is that the act of rebuilding the wall takes its toll on them physically and wears them down.

The speaker seems to be against the existence of walls, and he gives reasons for why they aren’t needed and points to the fact that even nature destroys walls. But it’s important to note that the speaker initiated the act of rebuilding the wall by calling on his neighbour. The speaker does just as much work as his neighbour, so while his words seem conflicted, his actions are consistent.

‘Mending Wall’ symbolism

Frost’s knack for using powerful symbolism allows him to create a poem that reads effortlessly while being rich with layers of meaning.

Walls

In a literal sense, the use of fences or walls is representative of a physical boundary between properties. Landowners need fences to protect their property and maintain boundaries. The wall can also represent the boundaries that exist in human relationships. The neighbour thinks boundaries are necessary to maintain healthy relationships, while the speaker plays the devil’s advocate by questioning its value.

A supernatural or mysterious force

The speaker mentions the existence of some force that is opposed to the existence of walls. This idea is expressed in the frost that topples the walls, the use of spells to keep the wall balanced, and the suggestion that elves are secretly destroying the walls. After all his intellectual efforts, the speaker seems to return to the idea that this mysterious force is the sole reason why the walls break down.

Spring

The act of rebuilding the wall is a tradition that takes place every year at the start of spring. The season of spring is traditionally a symbol of new beginnings and a fresh start. The act of rebuilding the wall in spring can be seen as taking advantage of the favourable weather to prepare for the harsh winter.

squirrel spring flower study smarterSquirrel in springtime, Pixabay

‘Mending Wall’: examples of poetic devices

Below we discuss some of the main poetic devices used in the poem. Can you think of others?

Enjambment

Enjambment is a literary device where a line ends before its natural stopping point.

Frost strategically uses this technique in parts of the poem where they are appropriate. A good example of this can be found in line 25, when the speaker is making an argument against walls.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

Assonance

Assonance is when a vowel is repeated multiple times in the same line.

This technique is used with an ‘e’ sound in lines nine and ten to create a pleasant rhythm.

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

‘Mending Wall’ meter

‘Mending Wall’ is written in blank verse, which is traditionally a highly respected poetic form. Blank verse is probably the most common and influential form that English poetry has taken since the 16th century.1

Blank verse is a poetic form that typically does not use rhyme but still uses a meter. The most common meter used is iambic pentameter.

Blank verse is particularly suited to Frost’s poetry since it allows him to create a rhythm that closely matches spoken English. For the most part, 'Mending Wall is in iambic pentameter. However, Frost occasionally varies the meter to better match the natural pace of spoken English.

‘Mending Wall’ rhyme scheme

Because it’s written in blank verse,Mending Wall’ does not have a consistent rhyme scheme. However, Frost does occasionally employ the use of rhymes to highlight sections of the poem. For example, Frost makes use of slant rhymes.

Slant rhyme is a type of rhyme with words that have roughly similar sounds.

An example of a slant rhyme is with the words’ line’ and ‘again’ in lines 13 and 14.

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

‘Mending Wall’ speaker

The speaker of the poem is a farmer in rural New England. We know from the poem that he has an ‘apple orchard’ and has one neighbour (who we are aware of) who is a traditional farmer.

Based on the speaker’s arguments, it’s safe to assume that he is well-educated and philosophically curious. Scholars have considered that the speaker of the poem represents Frost’s personal ideas.

The contrasting world views between the speaker and his neighbour give a mild sense of potential conflict and tension. To some extent, the speaker looks down upon his neighbour and views him as being naive and restricted to ancient ideologies. The neighbour seems to have an unwavering and practical worldview that he inherited from past generations.

Mending Wall, Apple Orchard, Flowers, Plants. StudySmarterAn apple orchard, Pixabay

‘Mending Wall’ themes

The central theme of ‘Mending Wall’ is about boundaries and their importance in a physical and metaphorical sense.

The poem presents arguments for and against the existence of walls through two characters who possess what seem to be opposite ideologies. The speaker raises the case against walls, stating that they cause unnecessary separation that can offend people. The neighbour stands firm in his opposing belief that walls are necessary to maintain healthy relationships.

The speaker considers humans inherently altruistic since he presents the case that walls aren’t necessary. On the other hand, the neighbour holds a slightly more cynical opinion of people, implying that walls are helpful to avoid conflicts that inevitably arise between people.

Mending Wall - Key Takeaways

  • ‘Mending Wall’ is a poem by Robert Frost consisting of a conversation between neighbours with different world views.
  • ‘Mending Wall’ is a single-stanza poem with 45 lines written in blank verse. For the most part, the poem is in iambic pentameter, but Frost occasionally varies the meter to better match the natural pace of spoken English.
  • Robert Frost wrote ‘Mending Wall’ at the start of World War I. His poem is a commentary on the importance of borders.
  • Frost uses literary devices such as irony, symbolism, and enjambment in the poem.
  • ‘Mending Wall’ is set in rural New England.

1. Jay Parini, The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, 2005.

Mending Wall

The meaning behind ‘Mending Wall’ is about the necessity of walls and boundaries in human relationships. The poem explores two different world views between the speaker and his neighbour.

The ‘Mending Wall’ is a metaphor for personal boundaries between people and physical boundaries between property.

The ‘Mending Wall’ is ironic because the rebuilding of a wall, which separates two people, brings two neighbours together every year.

Natural forces, such as the winter frost, and hunters break the wall in ‘Mending Wall’. The speaker regularly references a force that doesn’t like walls. 

Robert Frost wrote ‘Mending Wall’ to reflect America's diversifying population and the increased division that came with it. He also wrote it to reflect the importance of physical borders between people in order to maintain peace. 

Final Mending Wall Quiz

Question

What style of poem is Mending Wall?

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Answer

It is a narrative poem.

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Question

What form is Mending Wall written in?

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Answer

It is written in blank verse.

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Question

Where is the poem set?


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Answer

New England

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Question

What is the adage that the Neighbour keeps repeating?


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Answer

‘Good fences make good neighbors’.

Show question

Question

What type of trees does the speaker have?


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Answer

Apple trees.

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Question

What reason does the speaker give for not needing a wall?


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Answer

There aren’t any cows.

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Question

 What year was Mending Wall written in?


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Answer

1914

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Question

What natural force causes the wall to break?


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Answer

Frost underneath the wall caused it to break.

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Question

Who breaks the wall down for their own benefit?


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Answer

Hunters break the wall down to feed their dogs.

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Question

In what poetry collection did Frost publish Mending Wall?


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Answer

North of Boston

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Question

Who initiates the act of rebuilding the wall?


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Answer

The speaker.

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Question

What does the speaker imply when he describes his neighbour as ‘He moves in darkness’?


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Answer

The darkness implies that the Neighbour is ignorant.

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Question

How often does the wall get mended?


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Answer

The wall is repaired every year in the spring.

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Question

What is enjambment?


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Answer

It is when a line is stopped before its natural end point.

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Question

What is the most common meter used in Mending Wall? 


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Answer

Iambic pentameter.

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