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Literary Analysis: Robert Frost's "Mending Wall"

Rukhaya MK, an award-winning writer, has published her works in national and international anthologies and journals.


Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall" presents the conflict between myth and rationality, division and distribution, pragmatism and individualism, and regionalism and globalization. Penned in blank verse, it is the opening poem in Frost's second collection North of Boston (1914).

Frost's “Mending Wall" begins on an informal tone but proceeds to have deeper ramifications. Regarding the poem in 1962 fifty years after the publication of the poem, Frost had said: "People are frequently misunderstanding [ the poem] or misinterpreting it. The secret of what it means I keep." At the superficial plane, it comes across as a verbal argument between adjacent neighbors. On the other hand, it has deeper significations in that it points to any boundary, blockade or partition in any walk of life.

In his essay, "Education by Poetry," Frost states: ”Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, "Why don't you say what you mean?" We never do that, we being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and indirections - whether from diffidence or some other instinct.”

Though “Mending Wall” comes across as a regional poem, it is universal in its implications. Frost connotes more than he denotes and his social orientation is emphasized through this particular poem as he had read out the same in 1961 as an indictment on the erection of the Berlin Wall.

The tenor is conversational and has a casual mode at the exterior. However, there is latent satire and cynical humour. Frost’s statements are aphoristic, anti-thetical and captivating. Frost, the poet and teacher comes across in his poems as they aesthetic, and also strive for moral and social upliftment. The metrical departures, figures of speech like anthimeria, inverted sentences and the technique of enjambment stress the theme of the poem, the effacement of boundaries. Like Frost does not necessitate the need for a 'wall', the lines without full stops (that function as pointers to walls) run on. Also, Frost begins in his distinctive style with a typical example of his inverted statements. The structure in such sentences are inverted as with other poems of Frost. The freedom in structure also calls for freedom from boundaries:

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

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When the conventional statement would be: "There is something that doesn't love a wall." John C. Kemp states: ”The opposition between observer and observed--and the tension produced by the observer's awareness of the difference--is crucial to the poem.” We are left wondering as to what cannot love a wall.

Frost visualizes the ground underneath the wall swelling up to disrupt the boulders on the top of the wall. Sufficient gaps are made large enough for two people to make through conveniently. The hunters have also made their share of contribution to the same by “not leaving a stone unturned” in their attempts of revealing rabbits to the eager yapping dogs. Nonetheless, he points out that nobody has hitherto observed the gaps or heard the breaches being made. The idea of gaps being closed also signifies ‘narrowness of thought’. Spring-time is the apt time for cleaning-up, and ironically the rocks seem to discover themselves as dislocated. Frost notifies the neighbor that both of them ought to partake the responsibility to maintain the wall. They stipulate a day to reorganize the wall, as they walk the line along.

"To each the boulders that have fallen to each." The neighbors religiously attend to the bricks that have spilt onto their corresponding areas, and take care not to "trespass" to each other’s chartered territory. The bricks are out of place with their incongruous contours ,and resemble 'balls' and 'loaves'. It requires a good deal of ‘balancing act' to restore them. The speaker claims that "we wear our fingers rough with handling them." The entity termed a ‘Wall’ that was meant as a ‘source of security’ only causes them damage. The absurdity of the situation is sounded by alluding to the practice as 'just another kind of outdoor game, one on a side".

Frank Lentricchia states that "Kant's theory that work and the aesthetic activity are antagonistic, polar activities of man is, in effect, disproven, as the narrator makes work take on the aesthetic dimension." Frost trivializes the situation arguing that his region was an apple orchard; it was incapable and would not reach out for the cones under the pines. To contradict the same, the neighbor tactfully echoes an age-old adage: "Good fences make good neighbors." Despite the fact that it is the neighbor who mainly needs the wall in its position, it is the speaker who has to push forward the initiative for patching-up the wall during spring clean-up time. While the neighbor here postulates, "Good fences make good neighbors," the speaker seems to declare, "Good neighbors make good fences".

Though the neighbor voices a proverbial saying, he just carries on a maxim from his ancestors. His is only an echo, not an individual voice. And towards the end of the poem, it attains 'the pat stupidity of a slogan.' The line "Good fences make good neighbors" is listed by the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as a mid 17th century proverb, which was precious to the American consciousness due to its marked significance in the prescribed poem.

Frost ruminates on what factors make good neighbors - Is it the presence or absence of cows. The symbol of cows here is a concretization of domestic problems. On the other side, the neighbor emphatically renders a myth into a truth as he avows: "Good fences make good neighbors." Frost, conversely, aims at mythifying truth, when he adjudges that it could be 'elves' that disrupted the wall. The Wall stands for a powerful emblem of divisions and margins, dogmas of custom and canons of tradition that is the hallmark of civilization. However, the neighbor, far from appearing civilized, is perceived as an "old-stone savage armed" who moves about in the darkness of superstition. He appears to regress into primitivism, as he holds the boulder in one hand and moves in the labyrinth of irrationality. The neighbor is 'armed' as the nomadic is; and is relentlessly steeped in uncertainty and suspicion. Though the neighbor opines that he does not want to go against his father's aphorism; however, it is only an excuse or pretext for him: "And he likes having thought of it so well."

The title has a punning quality about it. "Mending Wall" implies the act of mending the wall. What’s more, it may also denote that the wall possesses the unique property of 'mending' or straightening out differences. But, as per Frost, the wall was primarily responsible for the difference anyway.

© 2019 Rukhaya M K

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