Frost’s Early Poems

by: Robert Frost

“Mending Wall”

Summary “Mending Wall”

This wall-building act seems ancient, for it is described in ritual terms. It involves “spells” to counteract the “elves,” and the neighbor appears a Stone-Age savage while he hoists and transports a boulder. Well, wall-building is ancient and enduring—the building of the first walls, both literal and figurative, marked the very foundation of society. Unless you are an absolute anarchist and do not mind livestock munching your lettuce, you probably recognize the need for literal boundaries. 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 (property boundaries, proper boundaries) are affirmed through the affirmation of other individuals’ rights. And it demonstrates another benefit of community; for this communal act, this civic “game,” offers a good excuse for the speaker to interact with his neighbor. Wall-building is social, both in the sense of “societal” and “sociable.” What seems an act of anti-social self-confinement can, thus, ironically, be interpreted as a great social gesture. Perhaps the speaker does believe that good fences make good neighbors— for again, it is he who initiates the wall-mending.

Of course, a little bit of mutual trust, communication, and goodwill would seem to achieve the same purpose between well-disposed neighbors—at least where there are no cows. And the poem says it twice: “something there is that does not love a wall.” There is some intent and value in wall-breaking, and there is some powerful tendency toward this destruction. Can it be simply that wall-breaking creates the conditions that facilitate wall-building? Are the groundswells a call to community- building—nature’s nudge toward concerted action? Or are they benevolent forces urging the demolition of traditional, small-minded boundaries? The poem does not resolve this question, and the narrator, who speaks for the groundswells but acts as a fence-builder, remains a contradiction.

Many of Frost’s poems can be reasonably interpreted as commenting on the creative process; “Mending Wall” is no exception. On the basic level, we can find here a discussion of the construction-disruption duality of creativity. Creation is a positive act—a mending or a building. Even the most destructive-seeming creativity results in a change, the building of some new state of being: If you tear down an edifice, you create a new view for the folks living in the house across the way. Yet creation is also disruptive: If nothing else, it disrupts the status quo. Stated another way, disruption is creative: It is the impetus that leads directly, mysteriously (as with the groundswells), to creation. Does the stone wall embody this duality? In any case, there is something about “walking the line”—and building it, mending it, balancing each stone with equal parts skill and spell—that evokes the mysterious and laborious act of making poetry.

On a level more specific to the author, the question of boundaries and their worth is directly applicable to Frost’s poetry. Barriers confine, but for some people they also encourage freedom and productivity by offering challenging frameworks within which to work. On principle, Frost did not write free verse. His creative process involved engaging poetic form (the rules, tradition, and boundaries—the walls—of the poetic world) and making it distinctly his own. By maintaining the tradition of formal poetry in unique ways, he was simultaneously a mender and breaker of walls.