A stone wall separates the speaker’s property from his neighbor’s. In spring, the two meet to walk the wall and jointly make repairs. The speaker sees no reason for the wall to be kept—there are no cows to be contained, just apple and pine trees. He does not believe in walls for the sake of walls. The neighbor resorts to an old saying: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The speaker remains unconvinced and mischievously presses the neighbor to look beyond the old-fashioned folly of such reasoning. His neighbor will not be swayed. The speaker envisions his neighbor as a living relic from a justifiably outdated era, an example of a dark-age mentality. But the neighbor simply repeats the saying.
Review The image at the heart of “Mending Wall” is striking: two men meeting on terms of civility to build a barrier between them. They do so out of tradition, out of habit. Yet the very earth conspires against them and makes their task Sisyphean. Sisyphus, you may recall, is the figure in Greek mythology condemned perpetually to push a boulder up a hill, only to have the boulder roll down again. These men push boulders back on top of the wall; yet just as inevitably, whether because of the hunters or sprites or at the invisible hand of nature, the boulders tumble down again. Still, the neighbors persist.
The poem, thus, seems to be based on three themes: barrier-building (segregation, in a sense), the doomed nature of this activity, and our persistence in this activity regardless. The speaker may dislike his neighbor’s pointless wall-building, may observe the activity with humorous indifference, but he himself goes to the wall at all times of the year to mend the damage done by hunters; it is the speaker who contacts the neighbor at wall-mending time to set the annual appointment. Which person, then, is the real wall-builder?
Looking at it from a different perspective, the building of walls, both literal and figurative, mark the very foundation of society. Figuratively, rules and laws are walls; justice is the process of wall-mending. The ritual of wall maintenance highlights the dual and complementary nature of human society: The rights of the individual are affirmed through the affirmation of other individuals’ rights. In this way the neighbor’s need for wall-mending seems justified.