Robert Frost's "Mending Wall"
The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged
The collection includes "Mending Wall."
The speaker in Frost's "Mending Wall" is a provocateur, questioning the wall's purpose, chiding his neighbor about it, yet he seems to be the one more concerned about its repair.
This speaker wishes to make a universal statement about neighborliness and friendship, yet he comes across as a somewhat haughty, judgmental individual, who ultimately displays an unearned sense of superiority. He finds his taciturn neighbor humorless and provincial because the neighbor believes that "Good fences make good neighbors."
First Movement: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall"
The crotchety speaker of Robert Frost's famous "Mending Wall" sets out to disturb the notion that farm neighbors should retain walls between their properties. He does so by insinuating that nature itself does not like walls.
The speaker asserts that it is likely the earth disapproves of that human activity by "send[ing] the frozen-ground-swell under it" which "spills the upper boulder in the sun." That marvelous and humorous activity of the earth leaves big openings through which two human bodies might be able to walk "abreast."
In its winter-frozen state, the very earth revolts against the wall, first bolting upward and then shrinking in the sun those carefully placed rocks of the wall until they come toppling down to leave those big apertures in the structure.
And then there is the problem with "hunters." On the hunt, they have been known to knock down whole sections of wall as they chase after their dogs sniffing out rabbits. The speaker's concern for his wall is so great that he has trailed after those hunters and repaired his wall right after they have chinked it.
The speaker, however, does not begin by naming any speculative reasons for the gaps in his fence. He leaves the causes somewhat mysterious as if there does not seem to be a reason for the falling rocks. He wants to imply that perhaps God himself is telling the fence builders something, but he does want to sound so dramatic, thus he leaves it as "something."
Second Movement: "And on a day we meet to walk the line"
The wall-disdaining speaker then calls on his neighbor to arrange a meeting for mending the fence together. During the process of mending the wall, the speaker remains on his own side of the wall, while his neighbor does the same.
They hand each other rocks as they go along. The speaker says that some of the rocks look like loaves of bread while others just look like balls. He complains that it is very difficult to get some of them to remain in place.
The speaker attempts to inject a little humor into the joint endeavor by saying that the neighbors have to "use of spell" on the rocks to get them to stay in place "until our backs are turned!" He complains that handing the rocks makes their fingers get "rough."
Third Movement: "Oh, just another kind of outdoor game"
Possibly from boredom, the speaker asserts that their endeavor has little more importance than a game placed outside, such as badminton or tennis. Because his property has only apple trees and his neighbors possesses only pine trees, which cannot move onto the other's property, the speaker wants to let his neighbor know that he thinks this ritual is unnecessary.
Because the speaker finds this chore tedious and without purpose, he states outright: "My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines." To this remark, his neighbor retorts the now famous line, "Good fences make good neighbors."
The playful speaker asserts that spring causes him to be somewhat mischievous. But still he seriously would like to understand the notion of his neighbor. Even more importantly, the speaker would like to "put a notion in [his neighbor's] head."
So the speaker asks, "Why do fences make good neighbors?" But instead of listening for a reply, the speaker continues his thought that there is really no need for a fence because his apple trees and the neighbor's pine trees will never cross onto the wrong property to each other.
Fourth Movement: "But here there are no cows"
The speaker could accept the efficacy of a wall if there were cows involved. Cows might amble onto the other guy's property and do some damage. But because only trees are involved the speaker finds the need for a fence questionable.
The speaker then asserts that if he had his way, he would put up a wall only if he felt it was worth fencing something in or out. He would also want to get permission from his neighbor to avoid the possibility of giving offense to the neighbor.
The walls do not want to stay in place, the speaker has found, and thus the speaker seems to think that the wall itself does not really want to be erected. Thus the speaker reiterates his opening claims that there is something out their that just "doesn't love a wall." But now he adds, not only does that something not love a wall, but it also "wants it down!"
Of course, it is the speaker wants it down because he does not want to have to keep mending it several times a year. He therefore concludes that "something" does not want the wall.
Fifth Movement: "Good fences make good neighbors"
With much mischief in mind, the speaker again would like to chide his neighbor by suggesting that perhaps elves were wreaking the havoc with the wall. He thinks better of the elves remark but still wishes the neighbor would say something colorful.
However, the neighbor simply repeats his only thought: "Good fences make good neighbors." The speaker assumes that his neighbor simply lacks a sense of humor and that the man is so set in his ways that he could never entertain a notion different from what his father thought.
If the wall cannot be dispensed with, the speaker would at least enjoy having a lively conversation with his neighbor as they mend the wall. Alas, the speaker cannot pull from his neighbor any responses, thus the speaker must muse alone in their endeavor.
Reading of Frost's "Mending Wall"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes