“Mending Wall” Robert Frost on Relationships

January 26, 2011

"Mending Wall" by Ken Fiery, 2007, from the Robert Frost Series

http://www.kenfiery.com/gallery/pages/080.html 

There is an accepted idea among lovers of poetry that a poem is a shared experience between the poet and the reader. Though the poet will never even meet the majority of his audience, there is a relationship that exists between he and they in the shared experiences of his poems. Robert Frost opens up his second book of poems, North of Boston, with the famous poem “Mending Wall.” It is his first word and the reader’s first impression of the book. In “Mending Wall” Frost explores a relationship between himself and his neighbor who is not named; his identity remains vague to the reader and, as it seems, to the poet as well. It is Spring in the poem, and Frost and his neighbor walk the stonewall that divides their properties to make repairs after the Winter. Towards the end of the poem Frost questions his neighbor about the need for walls. His neighbor simply replies that “Good fences make good neighbors,” and Frost ends the poem with that thought.

“Good fences make good neighbors” is a cliché that Frost is questioning in this poem. The poem ends with that statement; however, it begins with “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The conflict that arises between these two lines which encase the poem is the dilemma that the poet faces in the lines which are physically between them. Frost emphasizes this conflict in a number of ways. Not only is one the first line and the other the last line of the poem, these are the only two lines which are repeated in the poem. Also, “Mending Wall” is written in blank verse, Frost will often add an extra syllable in order to make a line stand out in his blank verse poems, and he does this for each of these two lines.

In the beginning of the poem Frost considers what it is that doesn’t love a wall. While he and his neighbor are making repairs Frost asks him, “Why do [fences] make good neighbors?” and argues against the need for a wall. There is little debate that the wall represents relationship boundaries between people. It would be easy to conclude that Frost is arguing that there is no need for these boundaries and people should just trust each other and accept each other unquestioningly. Yet upon a closer reading there is much evidence in the poem that may reveal Frost is closer in agreement with his neighbor than it seems at first. After all, Robert Frost says about writing that “There is no story written that has any value at all, however straightforward it looks and free from doubleness, double entendre, and duplicity and double play, that you’d value at all if it didn’t have intimation of something more than itself.”

From the beginning of Frost’s argument in line 23, he uses language that sounds playful, almost as if he is teasing his neighbor. Such as in line 25:

          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.’

Before Frost continues to dispute with his neighbor, he confesses to the reader that “Spring is the mischief in me.” So it is evident that Frost is not taking himself so seriously; in fact when he repeats “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Frost considers the something to be like “’Elves’… But it’s not elves exactly.” If we look at Frost’s ideas of what exactly “wants a wall down” from the first half of the poem, we find he doesn’t have anything very flattering in mind. It is “the frozen-ground-swell…the hunters [who] would have the rabbit out of hiding, / to please the yelping dogs.” If this were a poem arguing against walls, Frost would probably have thought of the things that doesn’t love them as more positive. I believe that Frost does truly question the use of walls, but he never questions the value of them.

“Mending Wall” is a poem that reveals a healthy relationship between the poet and his neighbor. If the wall represents personal boundaries, the title itself is an analogy to repairing relationships. It is Frost who contacts his neighbor so they can make the repairs “And set the wall between us once again.” Frost and his neighbor respect each others’ boundaries, and they meet regularly to make repairs on their relationship. In line 15 Frost says; “We keep the wall between us as we go,” a perfectly regular pentameter line, but Frost again makes an emphasis in the next line with an extra syllable; “To each the boulders that have fallen to each.” Frost and his neighbor each take responsibility for their part of the disrepair of the wall. However, in the next four lines Frost talks about the compromise and work it takes to repair the wall:

          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.

It takes a lot of balance, i.e. compromise, to repair some issues but when our backs are turned from each other we often let the “balls” drop. Relationships are hard work. It is at this point that Frost playfully questions his neighbor on the need for walls. While Frost is not rejecting the value of walls, I think that he is lamenting the lack of access to his neighbor that their wall makes. While he questions his neighbor he states:

          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 offense.

Frost expresses the down side that sometimes walls create a lack of understanding of the differences between neighbors. He uses the description of his neighbor who is grasping a rock to repair the wall; “I see him there…like an old stone savage armed.” But his neighbor remains elusive to Frost, which he expresses in two lines that he emphasizes as a loosely rhyming couplet; “He moves in darkness as it seems to me, / Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” That darkness is Frost’s ignorance of who his neighbor really is. Frost values and respects the boundaries in their relationship, yet he desires more access to his neighbor, as he says; “I’d ask to know / what I was walling in or walling out.”

Psychologists Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend have collaborated on a book entitled Boundaries, about the important roles boundaries place in healthy relationships. I think they express well in layman’s terms what Frost is expressing in his poem as his desire for his relationship with his neighbor. “Boundaries are not walls,” Cloud and Townsend write, they are “fences [with] gates in them…The important thing is that property lines be permeable enough to allow passing and strong enough to keep out danger.” To me, it seems when Frost questions his neighbor on the need for walls he is expressing his desire for passing through the gate in order to know him. Frost wants clearer understanding of his neighbor. Even with the playful way Frost debates with his neighbor he expresses his interest in him, yet his neighbor does not return the interest. He remains elusive to Frost only responding to him with the last words of the poem, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Frost opened his book North of Boston with a poem about his thoughts on healthy relationships. Though we, Frost’s audience, largely remained elusive to him, he offered to share his experiences with us. He kept his walls repaired but through his poetry Frost still keeps the gate open for us into his thoughts and ideas. “Mending Wall” invites us to continue the book and share in Frost’s experiences.

Peter L Richardson
“20th Century Poets”
September 22, 2003

Robert Frost on writing (pp125-128). Ed. E. Barry. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 1973.

Boundaries (pp 31-32). Dr. Henry Cloud, Dr. John Townsend. Grand Rapids, MI. c.1992.

“Mending Wall”
by 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: 5
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on 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, 10
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. 15
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. 20
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
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. 25
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. 30
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, 35
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, 40
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.”

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2 Responses to ““Mending Wall” Robert Frost on Relationships”


  1. […] “Mending Wall” Robert Frost on Relationships « Peterrock12. What I … […]

  2. D. Says:

    Thank you for this insightful interpretation of the poem. It helped me teach this poem to my son, and gain a better appreciation for Frost in general. I will look for more of your work for aid in reading future school assignments as it is far superior and more enlightening than the school’s.


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