Mending Wall

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 neighbour 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 neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they 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." 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 neighbours."

Footnotes

  1. The poem ends with a repetition of the proverb. Between the two instances of the proverb, the moral stakes of the poem’s situation have become clear. Both the narrator and the neighbor desire to destroy the wall, and yet both men agree to build it anyway. The conclusion represents a triumph of civilization over primalism. This conclusion is far from simplistic or pleasant however. For each person, the confinement of the darker, more primitive sides of the self is an ongoing internal struggle.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Frost uses prepositional language to convey the neighbor’s relationship to the wall. The idea of the neighbor “go[ing] behind his father’s saying” suggests that the father’s proverb—“Good fences make good neighbours”—is an object, a wall. To act against the saying and deny the importance of “good fences” would be to cross over to the other side of the wall of tradition and civility.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung devised the concept of the human “shadow,” which refers to all the aspects of human nature of which an individual is unconscious. According to Jung’s account, each person represses a number of natural impulses and behaviours in order to exist within a family and a society. The stifled sides of human nature form one’s shadow. In this pair of lines, Frost’s narrator momentarily witnesses his neighbor’s shadow, characterized as a “darkness” and a wildness. As the imagery of the savage showed, the neighbour’s shadow side “doesn’t love [the] wall.” Yet the man builds the wall nonetheless.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The narrator glimpses a vision of his neighbor as a savage. The phrase “old-stone savage” is likely a reference to the “Stone Age,” an era of early human history defined by the Danish archaeologist Christian J. Thomsen. The image places the neighbor in the context of a more primal state of existence. In this primitive context, the stone shifts from wall-building material to weapon. It is the savage side of human nature that civilization asks us to wall off within ourselves.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. The narrator alludes to “elves” as the possible identity of the “something” that wishes to destroy the wall. As the narrator notes, “it’s not elves,” for elves are supernatural. Yet he tempers this statement with the word “exactly” because elves bear some relevance. As mythological figures, elves represent those sides of human nature that “[don’t] love a wall”: the taste for mischief, the connection with the natural world, the desire for a primitive existence.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. Here the poem’s opening line is repeated. The identity of the “something” has shifted. At first, the narrator suspects there is a force of nature seeking to destroy the wall. The word “there” points to an external cause. By this point in the poem, however, it is clear that the “something” is not out “there” but rather within the human soul.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The word “offence” operates on three levels here. Socially, “to give offence” is to behave in an emotionally insensitive or law-breaking manner. This meaning applies to the poem in that the wall exists in a social context. The word offence comes from the Latin “offendo,” which means “to strike against.” This definition evokes the materiality of the wall, as well as the image of its destruction. Finally, “offence” is a pun, as it contains the word “fence.” Taking into account the Latin prefix “ob,” “offence” then means “against fence,” which sums up the narrator’s intellectual position.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. This question of what is being “wall[ed] in or wall[ed] out” is the central problem and theme of Frost’s poem. The wall serves not a physical purpose—“here there are no cows”—but rather a psychological purpose. The barrier represents both a walling in and a walling out. As the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud wrote, “the price of civilization is neurosis.” In other words, each human must “wall in” certain aspects of her own nature in order to participate in society. The result is a congenial “walling out” of the disagreeable aspects of others.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. In this line, the narrator claims to be overtaken by the spirit of mischief, represented by the season of “Spring.” The word “spring” carries the connotation of liveliness and activity. These elements all allude to the god Hermes, who in ancient Greek cosmology heralded the arrival of spring and was known as the fleet-footed deity of mischief and trickery. Hermes was the god of boundaries and boundary-crossing, the central theme of Frost’s poem. The narrator embodies Hermes in his deep desire to dissolve the wall, the subject of his subsequent lines of dialogue.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. “Good fences make good neighbours” is an English proverb which dates back to the 17th century. Frost’s poem, however, is largely responsible for its popularity today.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. The neighbor’s response to the narrator underscores the difference between the two men. The neighbor speaks twice in the poem, twice offering the same proverb. That the neighbor “only” borrows and repeats these words shows his alignment with tradition. The narrator, by contrast, seeks to dismantle the wall and the traditional thinking it represents.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. The narrator reveals the poem’s central irony: on a practical level, the wall is useless. The purpose of walls between farms is to prevent livestock from crossing over. As the narrator notes, “he is all pine and I am apple orchard.” It becomes increasingly clear that the wall serves a social, rather than physical, purpose.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The image of the stacked stones as loaves of bread reinforces the theme of the wall as a civilizing force. Bread is a symbol for agriculture, a cornerstone of civilized society. The image thus contrasts sharply with that of the rabbits, the food of wild poachers.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. In these lines, Frost begins to unveil the central tension between the two men. On one level, there is a camaraderie between them: they are neighbors, joining in this chore and tradition. On another level, the nature of the chore necessarily separates them. They come together to keep themselves apart, “keep[ing] the wall between.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. It is notable that the narrator initiates the the tradition of “spring mending-time.” As the poem progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator values tradition less than the neighbor does. The image of the hill between them represents the normal distance between the two characters. Though they overcome this spatial distance during mending-time, the wall itself brings to the surface the metaphorical distance between the two men.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. In the poem’s first half, Frost establishes nature’s relationship to the wall. If the wall represents humanity’s need for order, the wall’s destruction by ice and sun illustrate the opposing chaos of nature. In the images of the hunters’ demolition, we can see how nature’s chaos exists within humans as well as without. The rabbit-poaching in these lines shows how even the actions of men can run counter to the ordering forces of civilization.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. To illustrate the scale of the holes in the wall, Frost gives the reader the image of two people “pass[ing] abreast” through the wall. The image foreshadows the encounter between the narrator and the neighbor, who fill the gaps between them. The image also reveals the narrator’s deeper desire to cross the boundary presented by the wall.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. The phrase “spills the upper boulders” displays Frost’s ear for sound play. The words are rich in rhyme, containing both assonance and consonance, not to mention the internal end rhyme in “upper boulders.” Note the repetition of s and p—which finds its consonant pair in b—as well as the repetition of the liquid consonants r and l. These dense sound effects make the language more tangible, strengthening the image of boulders spilling down from the wall.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. Frost wrote “Mending Wall” in blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter. The pentameter line is often acknowledged as the natural line in English poetry. Its length is roughly the length of a breath, giving pentameter poetry a thoughtful, conversational tone. Frost’s choice in meter makes sense here, given the conversation at the poem’s heart.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. The poem opens with a mysterious phrase. The first word signals to us that the poem will uncover that “something… that doesn’t love a wall.” In the beginning, that “something” appears to be the forces of nature. But when the phrase is repeated later on, it becomes the narrator who challenges the wall’s existence.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff