The Poems of Robert Frost | Study Guide

Robert Frost

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The Poems of Robert Frost | Mending Wall | Summary

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Summary

Two neighbors differ on the importance of mending the stone wall that divides their properties. The speaker notes that there is no practical reason for the wall. There are no wandering herds to trespass, not even a single cow. His neighbor, however, bound by tradition, repeats his father's rationale: "Good fences make good neighbors." Still the speaker holds to his version: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." The speaker, rejecting his neighbor's preference for the past, attempts to gently goad him into reconsidering—but the neighboring hidebound New Englander gets the last word.

Analysis

"Mending Wall" was published in North of Boston (1914). Unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is commonly used in blank verse and for exalted subjects, appears here to present homespun truth. The poet of the rural vernacular, however, is not necessarily the poet of the common man. Frost biographer Jay Parini reports that the poet wrote "pastoral verse—poems on rural subjects for a well-educated 'city' audience." For Frost, elements of rural life operate metaphorically. In Parini's words, the image or symbol "is meant to represent something larger than itself."

In "Mending Wall," the speaker holds a modern position in opposition to the "savage" version held by his neighbor. The recognition of the different views held by the speaker and his neighbor becomes a source for the ambivalence commonly noted in Frost's poetry and advocated by the poet as well. Resolution in a poem does not necessarily mean unity. Part of what makes Frost modern and not Romantic—where wholeness or union between man and nature is a criterion—can be seen in the ambivalent and even open-ended finish to the poem.

The poem is a popular one. Its charms include lyric expression in the rhythms of the seasons that affect the land. Readers can also appreciate the playful ironies that constitute both the speaker's lack of enthusiasm and his heartfelt appreciation for the joint mending project. In contrast to the boyish speaker's wisdom in "Tuft of Flowers" where "Men work together ... whether they work together or apart," this speaker works alongside his neighbor. Still, he playfully acknowledges how far apart they are.

The poem is modern in its resolution. Two competing views, when taken together, lend texture and meaning to life. We are not all the same, and that can be a good thing, even if in this instance there is no practical reason for the barrier. "He is all pine and I am an apple orchard," the speaker says, and yet the separation suits his neighbor's sensibilities. The barrier enables him to hold firmly to his traditions, the integrity of the pine woods, and his father's point of view: "Good fences make good neighbors." The speaker is able to glory in his own generosity and self-awareness. His neighbor's darkness is not only the "woods and shade of trees" but his need to look to the past and to follow in his father's "savage" footsteps.

"Good fences make good neighbors" repeats twice in the poem. It is a common adage and almost a cliché for managing community life. Still, one cannot neglect the irony in its use in the poem. "Good fences" is at once a cliché (something that in its repetition has a ring of truth) and a truism (a worn-out idea that remains in the common vocabulary). Thus "Good fences make good neighbors" may be true or false. It is a bit of folk wisdom that for the speaker of the poem has outworn the uses of time and tradition.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall" is another line that appears twice in the poem. That "something" is not only the forces of nature but also the speaker, who sees the hard work as unnecessary and the traditional purpose as lost. The notion of repetition is important. Each man is credited with saying something twice, as though saying makes it so.

The speaker's self-congratulatory narrative is somewhat suspect. The traditional New England stone wall retains its aesthetic and historical appeal even as, perhaps, it has lost its practical purpose. It's hard to see savage darkness in holding to this picturesque tradition. The speaker's glee in "the mischief in me" is as clear as his wit when he describes some stones as balls with a mind of their own.

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