Tag Archives: Robert Frost

A Revised Close Reading of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”

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).

 

 

 

A Close Reading of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”

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 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 there is much imagery centering 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 spring time 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” 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.

Here, the reader sees the narrator begin to seriously question the walls by the narrator. “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 it out for himself. This hints at the larger point being made here which is that each individual needs to realize for themselves why they put up their wall in order to be able to question it and eventually be okay with taking it down. This is an individual experience every individual needs to go about and realize for his or herself. Thus, it is something the narrator cannot merely tell the neighbor but rather something the neighbor must find and understand out for himself.

It is evident that all together, Frost’s poem provides profound and relatable insight into the human condition and tendency to both create and break down the barriers that separate us from one another.

“He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I can put a notion in his head: “Why do they make good neighbors?”

Throughout the poem, Frost portrays the idea of the importance of walls and wall like structures. In this poem, we can interpret the uses of both a physical and a non-physical wall. First of all, as Frost talks about the wall, he uses clear visuals of the creating of a new wall like structure or things that you would imagine being inside of such structures (things like walls being made out of stones or cows being inside of a fence) to give it its physical structure. However, in other parts, he describes a general idea of what a wall does, without describing a physical wall, for instance when he talks about the “outdoor game” (because apple trees do not eat cones). This description leads to the main point of physical walls not only being used to create boundaries to keep the possessions of one neighbor separate from another, but also morphing a sort of trust or rather understanding between two different people. This being said, it is clear that the speaker of the poem understands the usage of walls, but doesn’t necessarily see them as a requirement in this situation, perhaps showing a bit more openness than the neighbor. However, if the speaker is not willing to understand the limits and boundaries of the neighbor, then they most likely will not get along or the “neighbor” will get more defensive, as we see when he adds more stones to the wall after the speaker’s question behind the purpose of walls. This type of relationship can be seen in a variety of interactions with different people; however, Frost uses this specific example to relay this message.

“I’d like to get away from earth awhile, And then come back to it and begin over.” Frost, p 737

In order to escape the demands and responsibilities of life, which can entrap him like a “pathless wood,” Frost describes his desire to be away from it all, and to come back to it again. Escape may not be the most appropriate word, as he does not want to run away his life on Earth in search of some better place. (“Earth’s the right place for love; I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”). He certainly does not want only part of his wish to come true, for him to die and “not to return.” Perhaps better suited to what he’s looking for is a moment of release, a way to leave reality and come back to it again in a sense of back and forth—like the motion of a swinging birch tree.

His release is like a pseudo-form of limbo, where by being perched on top of the birch tree, he is “toward heaven”—not quite in heaven, where he could never return, but no longer grounded. Like in limbo, he is somewhere between Earth and Sky, but unlike limbo, he is not stuck there. The swinging motion of the birch allows him to fulfill his desire of “going and coming back.” Going towards some form of Heaven, coming back down to Earth. Earth, being the physical ground, or the metaphorical grounds for truth and reality, and Heaven being the spiritually transcendent place, or the grandness of imagination. By saying he has used his imagination to release himself from the “considerations” of the everyday, Frost echoes an action we all have done. Reality and fantasy—both are needed to keep going in life. There is no shame in being a “swinger of birches,” and indeed perhaps it is unavoidable.