“Mending Wall” is a dramatic narrative poem cast in forty-five lines of blank verse. Its title is revealingly ambiguous, in that “mending” can be taken either as a verb or an adjective. Considered with “mending” as a verb, the title refers to the activity that the poem’s speaker and his neighbor perform in repairing the wall between their two farms. With “mending” considered as an adjective, the title suggests that the wall serves a more subtle function: as a “mending” wall, it keeps the relationship between the two neighbors in good condition.
In a number of ways, the first-person speaker of the poem seems to resemble the author, Robert Frost. Both the speaker and Frost own New England farms, and both show a penchant for humor, mischief, and philosophical speculation about nature, relationships, and language. Nevertheless, as analysis of the poem will show, Frost maintains an ironic distance between himself and the speaker, for the poem conveys a wider understanding of the issues involved than the speaker seems to comprehend.
As is the case with most of his poems, Frost writes “Mending Wall” in the idiom of New England speech: a laconic, sometimes clipped vernacular that can seem awkward and slightly puzzling until the reader gets the knack of mentally adding or substituting words to aid understanding. For example, Frost’s lines “they have left not one stone on a stone,/ But they would have the rabbit out of hiding” could be clarified as “they would not leave a single stone on top of another if they were trying to drive a rabbit out of hiding.”
In addition to using New England idiom, Frost enhances the informal, conversational manner of “Mending Wall” by casting it in continuous form. That is, rather than dividing the poem into stanzas or other formal sections, Frost presents an unbroken sequence of lines. Nevertheless, Frost’s shifts of focus and tone reveal five main sections in the poem.
In the first section (lines 1-4), the speaker expresses wonder at a phenomenon he has observed in nature: Each spring, the thawing ground swells and topples sections of a stone wall on the boundary of his property. In the second section (lines 5-11), he contrasts this natural destruction with the human destruction wrought on the wall by careless hunters.
The last sections of the poem focus on the speaker’s relationship with his neighbor. In the third section (lines 12-24), the speaker describes how he and his neighbor mend the wall; he portrays this activity humorously as an “outdoor game.” The fourth section (lines 25-38) introduces a contrast between the two men: The speaker wants to discuss whether there is actually a need for the wall, while the neighbor will only say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The fifth section (lines 38-45) concludes the poem in a mood of mild frustration: The speaker sees his uncommunicative neighbor as “an old-stone savage” who “moves in darkness” and seems incapable of thinking beyond the clichéd maxim, which the neighbor repeats, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Every year, two neighbors meet to repair the stone wall that divides their property. The narrator is skeptical of this tradition, unable to understand the need for a wall when there is no livestock to be contained on the property, only apples and pine trees. He does not believe that a wall should exist simply for the sake of existing. Moreover, he cannot help but notice that the natural world seems to dislike the wall as much as he does: mysterious gaps appear, boulders fall for no reason. The neighbor, on the other hand, asserts that the wall is crucial to maintaining their relationship, asserting, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Over the course of the mending, the narrator attempts to convince his neighbor otherwise and accuses him of being old-fashioned for maintaining the tradition so strictly. No matter what the narrator says, though, the neighbor stands his ground, repeating only: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
This poem is the first work in Frost's second book of poetry, “North of Boston,” which was published upon his return from England in 1915. While living in England with his family, Frost was exceptionally homesick for the farm in New Hampshire where he had lived with his wife from 1900 to 1909. Despite the eventual failure of the farm, Frost associated his time in New Hampshire with a peaceful, rural sensibility that he instilled in the majority of his subsequent poems. “Mending Wall” is autobiographical on an even more specific level: a French-Canadian named Napoleon Guay had been Frost’s neighbor in New Hampshire, and the two had often walked along their property line and repaired the wall that separated their land. Ironically, the most famous line of the poem (“Good fences make good neighbors”) was not invented by Frost himself, but was rather a phrase that Guay frequently declared to Frost during their walks. This particular adage was a popular colonial proverb in the middle of the 17th century, but variations of it also appeared in Norway (“There must be a fence between good neighbors”), Germany (“Between neighbor’s gardens a fence is good”), Japan (“Build a fence even between intimate friends”), and even India (“Love your neighbor, but do not throw down the dividing wall”).
In terms of form, “Mending Wall” is not structured with stanzas; it is a simple forty-five lines of first-person narrative. Frost does maintain iambic stresses, but he is flexible with the form in order to maintain the conversational feel of the poem. He also shies away from any obvious rhyme patterns and instead relies upon the occasional internal rhyme and the use of assonance in certain ending terms (such as “wall,” “hill,” “balls,” “well”).
In the poem itself, Frost creates two distinct characters who have different ideas about what exactly makes a person a good neighbor. The narrator deplores his neighbor’s preoccupation with repairing the wall; he views it as old-fashioned and even archaic. After all, he quips, his apples are not going to invade the property of his neighbor’s pinecones. Moreover, within a land of such of such freedom and discovery, the narrator asks, are such borders necessary to maintain relationships between people? Despite the narrator’s skeptical view of the wall, the neighbor maintains his seemingly “old-fashioned” mentality, responding to each of the narrator’s disgruntled questions and rationalizations with nothing more than the adage: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
As the narrator points out, the very act of mending the wall seems to be in opposition to nature. Every year, stones are dislodged and gaps suddenly appear, all without explanation. Every year, the two neighbors fill the gaps and replace the fallen boulders, only to have parts of the wall fall over again in the coming months. It seems as if nature is attempting to destroy the barriers that man has created on the land, even as man continues to repair the barriers, simply out of habit and tradition.
Ironically, while the narrator seems to begrudge the annual repairing of the wall, Frost subtley points out that the narrator is actually more active than the neighbor. It is the narrator who selects the day for mending and informs his neighbor across the property. Moreover, the narrator himself walks along the wall at other points during the year in order to repair the damage that has been done by local hunters. Despite his skeptical attitude, it seems that the narrator is even more tied to the tradition of wall-mending than his neighbor. Perhaps his skeptical questions and quips can then be read as an attempt to justify his own behavior to himself. While he chooses to present himself as a modern man, far beyond old-fashioned traditions, the narrator is really no different from his neighbor: he too clings to the concept of property and division, of ownership and individuality.
Ultimately, the presence of the wall between the properties does ensure a quality relationship between the two neighbors. By maintaining the division between the properties, the narrator and his neighbor are able to maintain their individuality and personal identity as farmers: one of apple trees, and one of pine trees. Moreover, the annual act of mending the wall also provides an opportunity for the two men to interact and communicate with each other, an event that might not otherwise occur in an isolated rural environment. The act of meeting to repair the wall allows the two men to develop their relationship and the overall community far more than if each maintained their isolation on separate properties.