Mending Wall: by John Donne - Summary & Analysis

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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."

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.
Mending Wall

Summary and Analysis


      Mending Wall is perhaps one of the most widely quoted poems of Robert Frost. It was included in North of Boston which was published in 1914. It is a dramatic lyric or a monologue, The speaker is young and the poem is mainly an expression or his views and attitudes. The other character is the poet's neighbor, an old farmer. However, he' is more of a silent member than an active participant in the poem. He does not even talk to us directly - he is only talked about and his views and attitudes are conveyed to us filtered through the speaker's mind, memory and imagination. His conservatism and orthodoxy come alive in all their subtle hues and shade. To all appearances, the monologue is merely descriptive and anecdotal but it leaves the reader puzzled and bewildered. There lurks a feeling in him that the poet is driving at some point which is not very clear. A vague apprehension of the feeling is the substitute of the clear comprehension of it, and is what the reader has to rest content with.

      The most striking aspect of Mending Wall is its thought content. In fact, it is this aspect of the poem that instantly appeals to us, more than any other thing in it. The thought of the poem is immediately relevant to modern man, more than any other. One of the most controversial and baffling problems of our age is the kind of relationship that should exist among nations. ln our age, there is a latent, profound paradox. Geographical divisions between countries are constantly giving way to the growth of the world as one large community and the promotion of the feeling of internationalism. But time and again, fanatic adherence to one's nation takes the form of militant nationalism.


      In Mending Wall the brief narrative represents two opposed attitudes towards tradition, in that the poet imaginatively challenges the literal and therefore meaningless rituals, epitomized in the wall being repaired when there is actually no need of a wall.

      The speaker in the poem, the poet himself and his neighbor gets together every spring to repair the stone wall between their respective properties. Contraposed to the speaker who is young, vivacious, energetic and with a flexible mold of mind, his neighbor an old New England farmer, seems to have a deep-seated (blind) faith in the value of walls and fences. He does not care to explain his belief,' and instead, stonily asserts his father's saying "Good fences make good neighbors." The speaker holds an opinion which is diametrically opposite to that of his neighbor:

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

      To his inquiring and receptive mind, his neighbor's unthinking adherence to his father's saying is a blinkered view and an ignorance which was generally the prerogative of the primitive.

He moves in darkness as it seem to me.
Not of woods only and the shade of trees....

      Yet things are not totally in favor of the speaker. His own attitude is also enigmatic and in some respects primitive. To all appearances he seems to be in sympathy with some elemental spirit in nature which denies all walls, divisions, boundaries. It is implied that there is some supernatural power at work in Nature - it is against any kind of fences or walls:

"....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...."

      While the opposing views of the two neighbors are presented with playful seriousness as foils, with the conclusion the discussion is resolved in favor of the poet's viewpoint. The poem ends with his characteristical emphasizing his neighbor's typical blindness.

      The poem presents a clash between these two points of view, and it may seem that its meaning is the solution Frost offers the conflict. The poem leads us to make a choice - which of the two is right, the speaker or his Yankee neighbor? Should we tear down the barriers which discriminate and isolate individuals from each other, or should we be practical and admit that distinctions and limitations are necessary for human beings if they are to maintain mutual goodwill. "Frost does not really provide an answer, and the attempt to wrest one from his casual details and enigmatic comments would falsify his meaning. It is not Frost's purpose to convey a message or give us a lesson in human relations." Though the poem presents the speaker's attitude, more sympathetically than his neighbor's, the speaker's viewpoint cannot be taken to convey the total meaning of the poem. Frost intends to present a problem and explores the numerous varied and paradoxical issues involved in it. "The clash between the speaker and his neighbor lays bare the issue, which within their world is the simple matter of whether or not it is worthwhile to maintain the unnecessary wall in defiance of nature's persistent attempt to tear it down."

Critical Analysis:

      The poem being important mainly because of its thought content, has been interpreted in many different ways at many different levels. Many critics have read symbolic meanings in the poem. The wall, for them, symbolizes all man-made barriers suggesting the divisions between nations, classes, economic, racial and religious groups. But none of these give a comprehensive, exhaustive meaning of the poem. Lynen says: "In the voices of the two men - the younger, whimsical, 'new-fashioned' speaker and the 'old-fashioned' farmer who replies with his one determined sentence, his inherited maxim - some readers hear the clash of the two forces: the spirit of revolt, which challenges tradition, and the spirit of restraint, which insists that conventions must be upheld, built up and continually rebuilt as a matter of principle."

      The one great merit of Mending Wall is that although in this poem the idea is the most important thing, the artistic flowering has not been subdued by preference to thought content. As Elizabeth Jenning puts it "Frost solemnly indulges at length in the pathetic fallacy even though, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, he often writes about inanimate objects as if they were alive...Everything here is tangible, concrete; the moral which Frost draws out of his poem is not arbitrarily imposed but is presented in indirect speech and so has none of the imperiousness which we find where the moral is not drawn out of the subject but clumsily pinned to it."

      The most obvious artistic specialty of Mending Wall is that it combines the elements of dramatic and reflective lyrics with the elements of dramatic narrative and dialogue. Thompson makes a deep analysis of the poem. He shows how the style is very apt for drawing a character sketch and the character helps in the exposition of the central theme. "Rhyme has given way to blank-verse, which is more in keeping with the tone of this laconic piece. Metaphor has given way to plain statement, which begins quite casually with a homely georgic on the wear and repair of stone walls. This little prologue leads directly into the brief reference to the arrangement for mending wall with the neighbors. Then comes the mild and playful conflict of opinions, in the course of which the neighbor is characterized by a single statement, iterated, reiterated, while the narrator's character is developed through the more spritely and whimsical banter.

      Mending Wall is a sort of monologue where we can identify the speaker, the poet himself, representing an average farmer with a neighbor of similar characteristics though a bit more conservative because of his old age. To all outward appearances, the poem is merely descriptive and anecdotal, but the reader is sure to have the feeling that the poet wants to convey something more than what could be understood at the outset. The line "good fences make good neighbors" brings out the apparent outer surface meaning. The old man, who is a bit orthodox, believes in the fact that the boundary wall or fence must be intact and well preserved to avoid disputes. This preventive measure will ensure friendly relations between neighbors. But the poet does not stop there. He wants to convey a deeper meaning. The words 'fence', 'walls' etc., could have the symbolic meaning of indicating international border lines between nations.

      The analogy of the relationship between two neighbors may be that of two nations. The fences and walls go to indicate barriers beyond the National Frontiers, too. They indicate the invisible barriers built up and broken by men among themselves. Is there a way of preserving the friendly relationships between two independent countries on either side of the bordering land or between man and man ? should these boundary lines be made stronger and well-demarcated, or should they be removed since they prevent us from identifying with our neighbors and achieving brotherhood? This question is put before the reader for him to solve for himself. According to another interpretation the dispute hinted here refers to the clash between traditional thinking and the rebelling spirit of youth. Preservation of the wall indicates the desire to perpetuate customs and conventional modes. Here also the poet does not provide us with an answer or solution to the problem. Of course, the poet or the speaker projects the ideas of the rebel more clearly than those of the traditionalist. The strong point in this poem is the simple presentation of contradiction and clash of opposites. The clue to a probable solution is contained in the following lines:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines.

      These lines may indicate that the poet is on the side of the new thinker. In the closing lines the rebel, the progressive thinker, calls his neighbor:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me
He will not go behind his father's saying.

      He says again: "Good fences make good neighbors". To conclude, the wall symbolizes all sorts of man-made barriers, divisions between independent states, economic, racial or religious groups, etc. But these things do not exhaust the symbolic meaning of the poem. A sensible reader with sufficient poetic background can find fresh meanings also.


      This poem is packed with thoughts. Ideas-wise this poem has the sparkle of a gem, yet stylistically too, it is an achievement. The poem is characteristic of Frost's colloquial style coupled with the usual Yankee reticence and understatement. This poem expresses Frost's philosophy of brotherhood and tolerance, of honest living, against the neighbor's dogmatic assertion that 'good fences make good neighbors.

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