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Literature Studies: Mending Wall by Robert Frost Essay

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Updated: Mar 17th, 2020

“Mending Wall” is the opening poem in Robert Frost’s collection of poems North of Boston (Frost 11-13). The collection was first published in 1914 when the poet was forty years old, revealing two decades of development of poetic elegance (Wallace 2).

Unlike the other poems in the book, “Mending Wall” playfully presents the mind of a man who is both imaginative and shrewd, and provides a sharp contrast to other darker poems in this collection. The poem was written in the trivial colloquial form (Gioia 186). The monologue narrative style of the writing is essentially a poignant feature of the book North of Boston.

The poem, “Mending Wall”, presents dominance of separateness and solitude in modern life (Wallace 2), as well as the conflict between the observer and the observed. The speaker and his neighbor present a stark contrast, creating a tension, which becomes the crucial theme in the poem. The importance of “Mending Wall” lies in its narrative form that pioneered in modern English poetry (Gioia 186).

The poem innovatively makes use of rhythms in narration (Gioia 185). This essay analyses the poem “Mending Wall” and presents the narrative mode a distinguishing feature of the poem, as well as creates a separateness of ideas creating island personalities between two neighbors, which is the essence of modern life as portrayed by Frost.

Boundaries are important to Frost. The author identifies the presence of the inherent separateness of man from society, nature, and other inanimate objects (Wallace 1). The poem is a clear exposition of what may happen when the walls that separate individuals are brought down and if an encounter occurs.

Patricia Wallace points out that the essence of Frost’s poems is their individualistic aura that separates “us”, the readers, from poet, and one would never feel the poem if one assumes that Frost is part of the communal “us” (2). In a way, “Mending Wall” is a “self-defining poem” , where Frost separates himself from society (Wallace 2).

The separation between the speaker, the poet, and the other is distinctly shown right from the beginning of the poem: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall / That wants it down” (Frost 11).

Thus, Frost insists on the separateness of his poetic voice even though Frost is aware of the difficulty of differentiating between the “other”, yet retaining one’s own identity. The act that is described in the first stanza of the poem is simply an action and does not entail any act of courage. However, as the poem moves further, Frost drops his teasing tone and adopts a different tone:

I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in the darkness, as it seems to me

Not of woods only and the shade of trees. (Frost 11)

The voice of the poem shifts once we reach the central part. The poem becomes introspective and it no longer mimes the slow movement of the neighbor. The poem turns on the reflection of the speaker as he imagines the neighbors in a different light and realizes how different they are from each other.

The speaker presents the neighbor as a distant other who is metaphorically described as “an old savage stone” (Frost 11). It appears to the speaker that the neighbor is engulfed in a shadow and darkness. The more he confronts the darkness, the more he comes to the barrier that he wants to cross but is unable to.

The first two lines of “Mending Wall” are an important as they present the importance of the farmer’s point of view of a “good fence” that is repeated in the middle and then at the end of the poem. The neighbor is found speaking only once in the poem, saying, “Good fences make good neighbors” (Frost 12).

The separateness that is demonstrated in “Mending Wall” is often described as a disassociation from the natural world or society. The symbolism of the stone-wall demonstrates the separation between the narrator and his neighbor and the poem implicitly denounces isolation through barriers and favors embracing love and trust.

The two characters of the story presented in the poem – the narrator/speaker who is the “good guy” and the traditionalist, dogmatic neighbor, the “bad guy” – demonstrate two opposing poles. The neighbor is a bullheaded purist who believes in his “father’s saying” and “will not go” beyond it, while the speaker is progressive and abhors discordant traditions.

The narrator, thus, describes his neighbor as the “old stone savage armed” man who is ignorant and narrow-minded. Initially, the narrator bemuses with ironical wit on the ridiculous task of wall mending calling it “just another kind of outdoor game” (Frost 11). He presents his point of view regarding wall mending with humor: “My apple tree will never get across / And ear the cones under the pines, I tell him” (Frost 11).

Frost clearly chose this open-minded man as his narrator and it leaves no doubt in our mind on whose side Frost is. Even nature, Frost indicates, is against the presence of the wall and sends its agents to make it fall: “the frozen ground swells under it, / And spills the upper boulders in the sun” (Frost 11).

According to the narrator, the walls do not want the stone walls to existing too; hence, the menders have to say, “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!” Frost skillfully uses nature’s support to substantiate the narrator, as well as his point of view and shows to the readers that his views are wise.

Like other nature-loving poets, Frost believes that spring is the inspiration that would change the point of view of the most stoic people:

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

“Why do they make good neighbors?” (Frost 12)

The philosopher in the narrator points out the aphorism in order to educate his neighbor: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out” (Frost 12). Evidently, the “wall” forms the central focus in the poem. Therefore, the importance the narrator gives to the wall cannot be refuted (O’Brien 147).

It has often been argued by critics that the speaker’s ironical presentation of self and Frost’s overall depiction of his character are unalike, and therefore, it also creates the central dichotomy in the poem (O’Brien 148). According to Norman Holland, the central problem is the blindness that Frost faces, and thus, comes forth a psychosexual symbol that depicts the conflict within the transcendent and the insentient (O’Brien 148).

Thus, a psychoanalytic analysis will show that Frost described the neighbor as a shadow of nature: “He moves in darkness as it seems to me, / Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” (Frost 12) The author uses the narrator’s words to present a psychological presentation of his neighbor and his surrounding terms. The narrator speaks on behalf of both himself and his neighbor.

The neighbor is reticent, but his thoughts and beliefs are fully conveyed to the readers through the mind of the narrator. He engages in an act of mending the wall without any word or regarding the necessity or usage of a fence. It is in the mind of the narrator that we see a glimpse of the neighbor’s beliefs and convictions about the wall.

Thus, it can be said that the narrator imposes the traditional discourses of the world as the neighbor’s thoughts, thus mirroring his character. The psycho-dramatic dimension of the poem is explicitly presented through the narrator who speaks from both his psyche, as well as that of a man whom he encounters during mending the wall.

Thus, in the poem, the neighbor assumes the symbol of a shadow figure that forms the emblematic design of the man who controls his psyche. Thus, the poem aids in the formation of the character of the neighbor through the thoughts and words of the narrator and the control over the narrator’s character by that of the neighbor’s. In other words, the narrator ends up revealing more of himself while describing his neighbor.

At the end of the poem, it becomes apparent that Frost, though his narrator, has succeeded in taking an observer’s approach to describing the characters. The traditional neighbor of the narrator, in the end, has his way, and successfully mends the wall, rejecting the entreaties of a drastic ideology.

In a way, the narrator has mended his personality while mending the wall. He was empathetic towards an antagonistic point of view of his neighbor, and instead of trying to impose his moral and philosophical ideals on him, the narrator silently followed him, without worrying about victory or defeat. Thus, the narrator becomes the observer even though the poem demonstrates the stark distinction between the characters.

Works Cited

Frost, Robert. “Mending wall.” Frost, Robert. North of Boston. New York: H. Holt, 1915. 11-13. Print.

Gioia, Dana. “Robert Frost and the Modern Narrative.” Virginia Quarterly Review 89.2 (2013): 185-193. Print.

O’Brien, Timothy D. “Archetypical Encounter In “Mrnding Wall”.” American Notes and Queries (1986): 140-151. Print.

Wallace, Patricia. “Seperateness and Solitude in Frost.” The Keynon Review (1984): 1-12. Print.

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