“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost Essay
“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost
Robert Frost’s poetry is always simple and direct, yet strangely deep. Everyone can read into his poem but with different kind of expression. Frost has been discovering the world. He likes to explore relationships between individuals and between people and nature. One of his famous poems, ‘Mending Wall’, reveals his feelings and ideas about community, life and imagination.
In New Hampshire, where Frost’s house was, there was a stonewall. This stonewall was the inspiration for the poem “Mending Wall”. It was here that Frost used to repair this wall with his neighbor Napoleon Guay, who always says: “Good fences make good neighbors.” In his poem ‘Mending Wall’, the persona and the neighbor are mending a wall that separates their properties. The most interesting statement in this poem: “Good fences make good neighbors” (line 25) is a paradox, which attracts our attention and lead us to further discussion on Frost’s intention to write this poem. Every winter, the wall fell down and every spring, the persona and the neighbor met together to mend it. It has somehow become an entertainment for them, as stated in line 21, “Oh, just another kind of outdoor game”. Later, the persona found that there were no reasons to mend the wall at all, and this arises to the central theme of the poem. The persona kept on questioning the reasons for mending since they do not keep any animals. In the poem, it says:
Why do they make good neighbors? 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 offense.(Line 31-34)
If a wall needs repair every year, it is not a good fence. Yet, it does make good neighbors because it brings the men together every spring. Maybe the neighbor’s father had this very same intention too. The two characters meet and know more about each other when they work on the wall together. This explanation is quite ironic because the wall is meant to isolate them, but is also a common ground that connects them. And the persona’s words also possess some kind of irony in it because though he was somehow criticizing the neighbor for mending the wall, he was doing it too. As Rober Poirier claims that ‘The real significance of the famous poem ‘Mending Wall’ is that it suggests how much for Frost freedom is contingent upon some degree of restriction.’ If the persona is actually Frost himself, he is then subject to a restriction for what he wants to do. He has no choices. He suffers because he has to rebuild the wall with his neighbor every year. But the point is, if the neighbor could not feel that they were in the dark, there would be no possibility of light for both of them. In order to change the whole situation, the neighbor needs to think it over what’s the mean of having the wall between them. But still, the persona has very limited control to the situation.
“Mending Wall is about the opposite impulse which is to fence yourself in, to form relationships that are really exclusive.”
(Richard’s book, p.7)
‘Mending wall’ is a poem about the world. It is about our community. The wall represents what we as individuals are blocking out. Frost questioned why the neighbor insists upon blocking their properties, though there are only trees inside. Maybe the man was just trying to keep out people, or even the world in order to feel more secure. The neighbor and the persona know that they have to rely on each other. But at the same time they are building walls to protect themselves. Here, the Chinese proverb “A wicked heart is unwanted, but a defensive heart is vital” can very well support their behavior.
In line 21 “Oh, just another kind of outdoor game”, it suggested that since the outdoors game involves some kinds of rules, it also can applies to the situation that people must know the rules in the community and play the game properly. It is ‘the wall’ in our mind that acts as part of the rule in our game and that ‘wall’ that has been taken for granted.
Frost wants to break down the barriers set up by man and to make the community live in harmony. The barriers, which are represented by the ‘wall’ in the poem, are what kept people from questioning or even contemplating things out in every day’s life. These barriers are often subconsciously put up and strengthened by people in a society and they control one’s thought. Frost reminds us to free our thoughts from barriers and to help us eventually attain freedom.
In line 20, the persona said, “We wear our fingers rough with handling them”. He asks his neighbor not to mend the wall anymore since it makes no reason for doing that. He wants to live in harmony. However, the neighbor says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” He thinks the wall keeps people honest but the only thing he is hiding behind the wall might be – fear.He gave himself an excuse that distance could guarantee everything. But “distance” can be easily been misinterpreted, as Mark Van Doren says: “Distance is a good thing, and so is admitted difference, even when it sounds like hostility. For there can be a harmony of separate sounds that seem to be at war with another, but one sound is like no sound at all, or else it is like death.” (33) To keep a distance doesn’t really mean to have to build a wall between the two. The wall here seems not quite necessary for the persona and the neighbor.
In a community, a wall can act both positively and negatively. Negatively, it can act as a barrier that put off communication, trust and unity. Positively, it can guarantee security and privacy in nowadays’ society. In the past centuries people kept on building walls, both concrete and abstract ones. The former protects both their property and privacy, while the latter blocks away their trust and communications with others. One very good example of the building of wall that blocks people apart was the Berlin Wall in Germany (1961-1989). After the Second World War in 1945, Germany was divided into two sectors called the FRG (the west Germany) and the GDR (the east Germany). For 28 years, the Berlin Wall separated friends, families, and a nation. At least 100 people were killed at the Berlin Wall. So, what’s the wall for? Is it really good to have a wall? For those years when the wall was there, relationship of people had not been improved but only hatred and grief had grown.
Robert Frost has written many poems about life. His poems contain topics on life choice, obstacles and gaps between people, such as The Road not taken, The Gift Outright and Come in. Reading his poems is just like “sucking the marrow of life”. He is a philosopher, but his ideas are lying behind his poems, not in them-but buried well in it, for us to guess at if we please.
In ‘Mending Wall’, a barrier is discussed. It can be both psychological and physical. The father of the neighbor reinforced and insured a lack of communication so it resulted in the ignorance in the next generation. The neighbor is a perfect example of the product of these barriers. He does not really know why the wall is there, he never questions his father’s words and understands that the wall is really keeping him and his neighbor from having a better friendship. Frost describes the neighbor as follows:
like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me.(Line 40-41)
The darkness is the ignorance that he has while mending the fence. This shows that the neighbor has limitation of thoughts. The wall restricts people’s sight and mental power without widening their insights that is why the neighbor is described as “an old-stone savage armed”.
Their farm contains only trees, which would be enough for a boundary. There is no physical need for the wall, so there is no apparent reason for going through the trouble of fixing it every year. The neighbor repeats saying “Good fences make good neighbors” although he does not know why the wall is necessary nor does he know why it will make them better neighbors. Frost is criticizing the ignorance of the neighbor here. However, it is ironic that self-righteous persona obsessively committed to the “wall building” himself. Maybe the main theme of the poem: “Good fences make good neighbors” does not only mean a good fence helps to make good neighbors because it can separate clearly their possession and one cannot interfere with others. It can vice versa be explained in the way the ‘good neighbor’ can helps to make ‘good fences’ because both of them will be responsible and willing to make their shared possession looks nicer.
The poem suggests something about no matter how or where we live, the place will become smaller and more enclosed if we forget to explore beyond our own boundaries. When we go beyond our walls, we can be more comfortable by knowing others. The persona thought that the wall is not necessary. He is perhaps non-traditional, non-confrontational and desires to have a true relationship without boundaries that can divide mankind. Line 23 illustrates that: “There where it is we do not need the wall”. However, there might be a difference in perception about the wall affairs. The persona might think that it is a “wall building” but the neighbor thinks that it is just “fence mending”.
To Frost himself, he thinks that a wall between men is terrible. From the first line in his poem, the “something” that made the wall fell might be ‘the power of love’. It reinforced the idea of “We must love one another or perish”. That ‘power of love’ doesn’t love the wall, for it is blocking people from loving one another. “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.” A wall is exactly the thing that prevents people from putting these words into action. The feeling of love is one of the basic needs for one’s life as this feeling influence very much our behaviors.
A wall is a wall. No matter how hard the neighbor tries to fix it, it would not change its original implication and effect, that is, to block out people. Just as a German painter claims that: “We are not trying to make the wall beautiful because in fact it’s absolutely impossible. 80 persons have being killed trying to jump over the Berlin wall to escape to West Berlin, so you can cover that wall with hundred of kilos of color, but it will stay the same…”(Thierry Noir)
Imagination is the forming of a picture in mind in a creative way. It is human’s internal thinking. Imagination is always needed for creating a poem and when analyzing it. It gives us dream and a sight of the future. The more a person is civilized and educated, the more imaginative their minds will be. Every person (but more on poets and artist) possesses these qualities. Imagination is needed to work out the abstract ideas in our lives. Without imagination, we won’t be able to understand our lives because life itself is very abstract.
In the poem, the persona made an imagination that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (line1). That ‘something’ is an imagined agent who caused the wall to fall every year. It was left as a mystery. Frost led us to think who or what that ‘something’ is, and why it has caused the wall to fall, and later, bring to the argument of “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The theme of the poem is that the persona thinks that no wall is necessary between his neighbor and his property. In the poem, the persona thinks that the neighbor seems to use the wall just for keeping the cones of the pine trees away from the apple trees. Frost made use of metonymy in line 24-26 to describe his feeling:
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.
It means the persona is growing apple orchard while the neighbor is growing pine trees. Since they are only trees and not animals, they would not be able to get across to the other side to disturb each other. Frost mentioned this to reinforce his feeling of mending the wall is foolish.
If imagination is applied in interpreting this part of the poem, I think these lines could also mean that the persona was comparing himself to an apple orchard, he is nice and he can bear fruit, and the fruit is sweet. The apple here may symbolize the persona’s thoughts and ideas, which is quite right and brilliant. The neighbor is compared to a tall, unbendable pine tree, which symbolize that he was stubborn and reluctant to change. The neighbor does not have individual thoughts and critical thinking, he only believes whatsoever his father told him about.
Imagination makes impossible become possible. It also turns meaninglessness into meaning. In reading poetry, it should be open for interpretation instead of having one possible answer. It is people’s emotional state of mind that cannot be concrete or visualized. Poetry is dead because the poem is dead; it’s different imaginations and interpretations, which makes poetry alive.
Robert Frost’s poem is easy to understand. It covers a large area of topics. The poem is easy and simple. Yet, if you drill more into it, you may discover that it contains many morals that enlighten you and help you to live a better life. As Mark Van Doren has said:
He is a poet who can be understood anywhere by readers versed in matters more ancient and universal than the customs of one country, whatever that country is. (32)
His intention of writing this poem is to reveal the strong message about love and unity, as in the song “The Internationale” has stated:
Let no one build walls to divide us
Wall of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone…