Between the Lines: Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’

Mending Wall ~ Robert Frost

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,

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

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.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

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.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

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

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 offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

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

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

He said it for himself. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

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

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

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.”

Just One Poet’s Interpretation: 

The young Robert Frost, circa 1910. Source: Wikipedia Commons

What is the ‘something’ here that “doesn’t love a wall? Another helpful question would be: what is the context of this poetic statement? The poet is doing his annual springtime inspection of the boundary wall between his home and his neighbour’s. He remarks on the fact that, no matter how many times the wall is mended, year after year, still holes open up in it as if by some magical force. Indeed, this perception shades almost into superstition:

To each the boulders that have fallen to each. 


And some are loaves and some so nearly balls 


We have to use a spell to make them balance: 


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

Frost however has put ‘himself,’ as the speaker in the poem, subtly at odds with his neighbour. He tries to “put a notion in his head,” by an eloquent argument in favour of letting Nature take its course. He begins with a question so obvious that it has never occurred to his neighbour to ask it:

Why do good fences make good neighbours? Isn’t it 


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


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 offence. 


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, 


That wants it down.

Frost is illustrating to the reader how blinding unexamined beliefs can be, how homilies and worn-out clichés prevent people from thinking before they act. In the end, his neighbour doesn’t buy his well-stated argument, preferring the comfort of old habit to new awareness: “He will not go behind his father’s saying.” Hence the poem ends with the man merely re-stating the old proverb, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’ The poet makes it clear which speaker he thinks is the more spiritually developed: the neighbour is likened to some earlier stage of evolutionary development:

I see him there 


Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

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


He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees. 


Note the “old-stone savage” and his moving “in darkness… not of woods only and the shade of trees,” signifying spiritual darkness or stunted emotional growth.  A little poetic revenge on the stubborn neighbour, maybe?

But we are left with yet another layer to the poem: what is it, exactly, that “doesn’t love a wall?” Frost makes it clear the speaker isn’t really superstitious, because he balks at suggesting the force that continually topples the stones on the wall is ‘elves.’ Here is where poetry takes on its spiritual dimension: the meaning behind or above the lines, the second or third or even fourth dimension to a poem. Certainly Frost opens the poem with a broad hint that he sees it as a force of Nature:

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, 


And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

A stone wall at Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire; Frost was inspired to write 'Mending Wall' by similar walls he saw in Fife, Scotland. Source: Wikipedia

By insinuating that the simple phenomenon of frost heaves (lovely and skillful, that he was able to work that in by implication, given his name) are the force responsible for dislodging the rocks on the fence, Nature’s nameless presence is immediately seen. He makes a sharp distinction between its work on the wall and the hunters’ destructiveness. Still, being a poet, Frost isn’t content to leave Nature a disembodied, anonymous or merely mechanical force. By giving it a human quality, love—or lack of it—Frost implies that it has preferences just as humans do. And it certainly has no love for a wall, just as the speaker of the poem doesn’t. Gradually it becomes apparent that Frost is arguing for a much larger force at work here, a force we mere humans might be best not messing with, if its express will is to tear down a wall.

Maybe Nature is trying to tell us something important: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Walls are age-old symbols, and they have the advantage of cutting both ways: to those inside they are protection (as in the comforting, unthinking cliché “Good fences make good neighbours”); to those outside they are boundaries of exclusion keeping them out in the cold. The problem with walls is that they take a tremendous amount of energy to maintain, as Frost’s poem makes clear. Not only that, but ultimately they serve to separate people: the speaker and his neighbour, even as they meet to repair the wall, walk each on their own side. Without knowing Frost’s politics, it’s tempting to extend the metaphor even further to suggest that he’s making a subtle criticism of nationalism.  But that’s another dimension to the poem I won’t go into here.

Frost in his later years, circa 1941. Source: Wikipedia

It may simply be that Frost is speaking in the spirit of the Romantics, who see Nature as ultimately benevolent and knowing what’s best for all its creatures, including us. Walls create artificial barriers or fragment the whole like spreading cracks on a piece of glass. To the poet, on balance, walls are ultimately more destructive than beneficial. Still, Frost isn’t enough of a Romantic to miss one sadly obvious point about human nature: there will always be those who do love a wall.

Postscript:

This is the great and everlasting power of poetry, that a single poem can contain so many possible dimensions. As Alfred de Musset explains, “Each memorable verse of a true poet has two or three times the written content,” depending on what the reader brings to the poem—their background, education, beliefs, etc. There are therefore innumerable interpretations to any poem, just as there’s a wide range of emotions provoked by a single piece of music or a painting. My only quibble is with interpretations that contain covert agendas artificially superimposed on a poem, which to me is akin to grafting a genetically modified limb onto an organic tree. As EM Forster said, “Information points to something else. A poem points to nothing but itself,” and all the worlds it already contains.

Here’s just one more interpretation: http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/frost/section3.rhtml

For more information on Robert Frost: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Frost

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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One Response to Between the Lines: Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’

  1. Thanks, Arthur! I enjoyed talking a walk through Frost’s poem with you. Something there is that loves a wall in the process of falling down and being reclaimed by roots, vines, moss, nests…

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