Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, is a relatable commentary on the human tendency to simultaneously fear and yearn for human connection. Told through the lens of the narrator’s personal experience with this, the poem centers on the point that this fear humans have of true connection is complicated by their simultaneous longing for said connection. Humans put up walls because they are scared to connect, get involved, and put themselves out there, yet there is this constant, nagging feeling of longing to question and break down these walls in pursuit of meaningful connection. The entirety of Mending Wall centers on questioning the notion that “Good fences make good neighbors” (Frost 27).
The poem begins with much imagery surrounding the wall. The assertion that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (1), immediately bringing to the reader’s attention the complexity of the situation – walls are put up, but they do not go without questioning and scrutiny. This line seems to suggest that there is something intrinsic in humans that does not approve of this natural tendency to block others out and isolate from one another. The “frozen-ground swell[ing]” (2) under the wall suggests a resistance from the ground, as it tries to swell up and push up against the wall from underneath, attempting to crumble the foundation of the wall so that it may collapse and “spill” the “upper boulders” that make up the wall “in the sun” (3). Here the wall imagery centers around nature which implies the fact that nature and the natural world – the frozen earth beneath the wall, the sun, etc. – all want the wall to be broken down, that perhaps the wall is something unnatural and solely created by humans but not truly meant to be there.
The poem then takes the story back in time to the “hunters” (5) that came in time before the author narrating the story. The “hunters” who came before the narrator “have left not one stone on a stone”, meaning that the “hunters” never built the walls so common to mankind now; that back in the age of “hunters”, there were no walls because the society was community-oriented, men were together, bonded closely and meaningfully attached to one another. Yet, as the narrator confesses in the line, “I have come after them and made repair/Where they have left not one stone on stone” (6), he came after these hunters and “made repair”, or built up these previously un-built walls. The word repair is interesting here because it usually indicates a positive image – repairing something is fixing it and making it better. Yet here the reader is left to question whether this “repairing” of the wall is actually doing any “repairing” at all. In a way, the “repairing” of the wall, in context of the isolation and separation that the wall represents, seems to contradict its own meaning – it is actually harmful and damaging for humans to build these walls. The next line “They would have the rabbit out of hiding,/To please the yelping dogs” (8) may seem like it is referring “they” to the hunters, but the narrator quickly corrects this idea stating directly after, “The gaps I mean” (9). These gaps are gaps found within the walls and are what “would have the rabbit out of hiding/To please the yelping dogs”. This means to display the fear humans have at having any gaps in their wall and points to why the walls are put up in the first place: fear. Humans hide and build these gapless, completely solid walls to keep away from the “yelping dogs” that are other humans. There is this fear that we are helpless, endangered rabbits just waiting to be teared apart– perhaps physically, but even more so emotionally – by the yelping dogs that are other humans, and for this reason, we resort to building walls to isolate ourselves and more significantly, to protect ourselves from others and the pain other humans are capable of inflicting on us.
These gaps referred to seem to be mysterious, as “No one has seen them made or heard them made” (10), however “at spring mending-time we find them there” (11). This “spring-mending time” is an interesting line to deconstruct as spring is a time in which people venture out of their houses or winter hiding places, and thus would seem like a wonderful time in which one is able to be with other people and join into the company and community of others. Yet the imagery of this beautiful time when people come together is sullied by the realization that spring time is also “mending time” and is a time when people come outside solely to fix the “gaps” in their walls, not to come outside to be together. Here, this beautiful springtime with so much potential for human connection is ruined by the fact that the mending occurring is for the walls, and thus is a perpetuation of human separation. The narrator “let [his] neighbor know” that the gaps were there, and they “meet to walk the line/And set the wall between us once again”. Even as they repair and refill the gaps in their walls, they “keep the wall between [themselves] as [they] go” (15). All of this description serves to illustrate the immense amount of reluctance there is to have any contact or connection at all – the wall is constantly present between the narrator and his neighbor, illustrating the constant safe distance kept from one another. As each person constantly keeps this safe distance, each person is also forced to individually accept the “boulders that have fallen to each” (16), allowing these boulders to “wear our fingers rough with handling them” (20). There is this absolute rejection of sharing ones “boulders”, or burdens with another – the only option seems to be carrying ones burdens entirely alone, silently suffering and wearing oneself down with their immense weight.
The next lines “Oh, just another kind of outdoor game/One on a side,” turn the poem to point to the fact that humans do not take this separation and isolation as having serious consequences. To them, it is just “another kind of outdoor game”, one stays on their side, the other stays on their side. There seems to be a failure to see the serious implications of this separation from one another. However, as the narrator realizes and voices, “It comes to a little more” (22) than just an outdoor game; the building of walls to separate from one another does carry harmful implications in separating us from one another, leaving us all devoid of any meaningful contact or relationships.
At this point in the poem, the reader sees the narrator begin to deny the walls. In the line, “There where it is we do not need the wall” (23), the narrator essentially out rightly states that where the wall is, it does not need to be. Put more simply, the wall does actually not need to exist at all. This seems to be a revelation of the narrator’s, and thus he attempts to share this revelation with his neighbor. “He is pine and I am apple orchard/My apples trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him” (24-26). Here, the narrator acknowledges and accepts the differences between himself (the apple tree) and his neighbor (the pine tree), but assures the neighbor it is safe and okay to take down the wall. Yet the neighbor refuses to see the truth in what the narrator has to say, still scared to break down the wall, and replies to this revelation with the cliché saying, “Good fences make good neighbors” (27). The reluctance of the neighbor to accept what the narrator is telling him reflects how difficult it is for one human to take another human on their word – what if the apple tree does end up coming over to “eat the cones under his pines”. There is too much uncertainty there, and such a high risk of getting lied to, stolen from, betrayed and hurt. Thus it seems better and safer to close oneself up, keep the distance, and protect oneself from this hurt through keeping the wall up. However the reader, in this vague and evasive cliché saying, “Good fences make good neighbors”, is invited to question this notion that any of this building of barriers between one another is actually “good”, healthy, or constructive in any way.
The narrator takes the task of questioning this idea upon himself and this time around, spring is not a time for “mending” the wall, but rather is a time where the “mischief” (28) in him comes out. There is thus a shift it what spring means for the narrator, from a time of building up and “mending” the wall to a time of mischief, questioning, and attempting to break down the wall. With this realization, the narrator wonders if he can “put a notion” in his neighbor’s head and make him too question, “Why do they make good neighbors” (30). However, the narrator realizes that trying to use his own experience and questioning of his walls to get the neighbor to question his own walls will not work, in the line “I could say ‘Elves’ to him/But it’s not elves exactly and I’d rather he said it for himself” (36-37). The physical difference between the same word, “Elves” and elves, in this line is a representation of how the narrator cannot give the neighbor his own reasoning for questioning and taking down his walls as an answer for the neighbor’s own struggles because his reasoning for putting up his walls are entirely individual and different from that of his neighbors. Thus he could say “Elves” to his neighbor, but for the neighbor the reasoning would come out as “not elves exactly”. In the physical change of the word one can see that the reasons for putting up ones walls ultimately come out as different for every individual. The neighbor must “[say] it for himself”, meaning that the neighbor needs to figure out for himself what is prompting his tendency to build barriers. This hints at the larger point being made here which is that each individual needs to realize for themselves the root of why they put up their wall in order to be able to question it and eventually be okay with taking it down.
Through the shift in the narrator’s perception of walls from necessary to hurtful, Frost is able to display profound and relatable insight into the human condition and tendency to both create and break down the barriers that separate us from one another. The acknowledgement of this human tendency ultimately successfully brings the reader to seriously question the poem’s final note that “Good fences make good neighbors” (44).