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On Robert Frost’s Poem “Mending Wall”

Reading Notes


A Narrative in Blank Verse
Mending Wall” appeared first in Robert Frost’s first American book of poems, North of Boston (after “The Pasture,” which served as preface to the collection). Like many of Frost’s poems it is narrative in nature, populated not only with images and metaphors but with recognizable human characters, telling a story through their dialogue. And like much of the greatest English narrative poetry (Shakespeare’s plays, John Milton’s Paradise Lost), it is written in blank verse—lines that are metrical, most often iambic pentameter, but not rhymed.

Meditation on Entropy
In this case the narrative interaction is between the speaker, presumably Frost the New England farmer, and his neighbor. But first, there is the damage wrought by the passage of time on the stone wall between their lands, which leads the poet into a meditation on the forces of entropy conspiring against the wall:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
...the frozen-ground-swell...
The work of hunters...”

The Seam and the Spell
The neighbors meet to walk along the wall, each replacing the stones that have fallen on his own side, and this is the central metaphor of the poem—the wall itself is not only a theoretical boundary, a dividing line, but also as the two men repair it, it begins to seem like a seam stitching together the two farms. The work the neighbors are doing requires both physical labor and a kind of magic:

“We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.”

An Attempt at Conversation
Doing this work, the narrator begins to feel it is no more than “just another kind of out-door game,” because the wall is only symbolic, not really necessary:

“He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.”
But this attempt to begin a dialogue is met with a silencing proverb:
“He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’”
This simple sentiment sparks mischief in the poet, who wants to “put a notion in his head”—but the conversation is as much a thing of form and symbol as the wall-mending, and the rest of the poem circles back through the narrator’s unspoken musings, only to arrive again at the neighbor’s satisfied pronouncement:
“...he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’”
Unable to penetrate the darkness walled behind the repeated proverb in his neighbor’s mind, Frost wrote this poem instead.

Reader Stories: On “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost

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