Mending Wall


Mending Wall
by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
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.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘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.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

The image at the heart of “Mending Wall” is arresting: two men meeting on terms of civility and neighborliness to build a barrier between them. They do so out of tradition, out of habit. The poem seems to meditate conventionally on three grand themes: barrier-building (segregation, in the broadest sense of the word), the doomed nature of this enterprise, and our persistence in this activity regardless. But, as we so often see when we look closely at Frost’s best poems, what begins in folksy straightforwardness ends in complex ambiguity. The speaker would have us believe that there are two types of people: those who stubbornly insist on building superfluous walls (with clichés as their justification) and those who would dispense with this practice—wall-builders and wall-breakers. But are these impulses so easily separable? And what does the poem really say about the necessity of boundaries?

Frost’s poem is often listed as one of the great friendship poems, and I believe it speaks wonderfully of some of the intricacies of friendships. I have wonderful friends close to home and some who live far away from me and are part of my camaraderie of cyber friends. My friends closer to home are those I went to school with, work with, or met through family or acquaintances. All of my blog friends, who by the way mean as much to me as my friends who live nearby, live in far away places (with one or two exceptions). I think though that with all friendships we build walls. Just as the speaker in “Mending Wall” asks why we need the wall, I too ask why we need the walls. I don’t know that I have an answer for that, but I think I might have an idea. I know there are certain things in real life that I don’t share with my friends. Different friends I will reveal different things to. It’s not that I’m lying to them, at least I don’t see it that way, but it is because different friends share different parts of my life. Most of my friends know that I a gay, but not all of them. Why don’t I tell them? I really don’t know, but part of it is that the subject never came up. They may or may not know or may think they do know, but it really doesn’t matter to me. It is really not my defining characteristic, so why should it matter.

Yet, I am very honest about myself within the context of my blog. A lot of that has to do with the anonymity of writing a blog. Some people know me personally who read my blog. I am very honest and open with those people. I trust them to be open and honest with me and many of them are. Some have become my greatest friends, and they know who I am talking about. I love them dearly, and I hope they know it. Others I’m just getting to know. I feel as if I can often be more honest with them, but are their still walls involved? Of course there are, usually that wall is the great distance between us, but I still endeavor to be completely honest with them. Some may get to know me and not like my honesty or some other aspect about me. When that happens, I rarely know what it is, even though I wish I did know. If I knew what I said or did I might could mend things. Then again, I might just have a fundamental flaw that they see that I don’t, but I would lie, to fix it if possible. Sometimes, I just want to know what changed so suddenly in the friendship, but that wall is there and my southern upbringing taught me that it is rude to be impolite. The walls are around us, and I know that we don’t need them, just as the speaker in this poem states. Yet, you still have to wonder, do “Good fences make good neighbors”?

Hell, I think I got off the subject here, yet I chose this poem to speak about friendships. I do love the poems of Robert Frost. “Mending Wall” is one of my favorites. I can’t wait until we get to Frost’s poetry in the American Literature class that I teach. I have always enjoyed teaching the poets.

I want to add one more poem to end this post. It is also from a favorite poet of mine and it speaks for itself.

Dear Friends
by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Dear friends, reproach me not for what I do,
Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say
That I am wearing half my life away
For bubble-work that only fools pursue.
And if my bubbles be too small for you,
Blow bigger then your own: the games we play
To fill the frittered minutes of a day,
Good glasses are to read the spirit through.

And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill;
And some unprofitable scorn resign,
To praise the very thing that he deplores;
So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,
The shame I win for singing is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

8 responses to “Mending Wall

  • Luke

    This is absolutely masterful, both as an introduction to Frost’s theme but also in the way you used the poem to probe your own feelings. Lovely. Sometimes I think that intelligent people (of which you are most definitely one) over-analyze things. I can be guilty of that myself, though less so than … well, in the before time. In the fullness of time, things usual become clear and cogent.

    • closetprofessor

      I try not to over analyze, bun one of the reasons I love poetry is because of the way it speaks to me. I have never really cared about the “official” interpretation of literature. It’s more about the feeling it evokes in me. I’m glad you enjoyed he post.

      • Luke

        I did (very much) and I think you’re right … as a teacher I’ve always had trouble teaching poetry. I’m fine teaching as context, i.e., the Byronic hero or the Sonnet form, etc. … but I’m ever so nervous when I try to explicate things for students. Will I ruin it? Get it right? Anyway … poetry is a way of being self-absorbed without being self-absorbed (if that makes sense!)

      • closetprofessor

        It makes total sense and I can teach the context just fine. As far as interpreting, I let my students think for themselves and just guide them. That way we interpret it together in our own way.

      • Luke

        You’re probably a better teacher than I am (or was). I taught super-bright, high-achiever prep student sophomores in classes of about 12. They chiefly do all the work just because … they can, I suppose. Half the time one of them would interpret a poem and I’d nod sagely while thinking, “Good gravy, I never even considered that possibility !”

      • closetprofessor

        My English class is a lower level English class. I have to teach on their level. I wish I had super bright students that I could do more with.

  • Halim

    ‘Dear Friends’ sounds like the most elegant one-finger-salute I have ever read. I probably got it wrong so I’m off to hunt for its meaning.

    ‘Mending Wall’ is touching and so is your opinion of it. It brings home that I’m more the neighbour, although I think I’m far less crazed and more polite than a savage armed with stones, but I do prefer fences because I’m just too wary of people to be honest. My loved ones, family and friends, know I will go to the ends of the world for them and I strive to be nothing less than kind to them, but even with them I need walls for the sake of my own emotional wellbeing. Even nice people you love can be judgemental, so those walls stay up so I can breathe. If I’m in the mood to be intimate and chatty, I’ll climb over the wall bearing a fruit basket or something to hang out for a while.

    Thank you for the introduction to the two poems. I don’t read a lot of poetry but I like those two.

    • closetprofessor

      You’re right about “Dear Friends”. It was written to say, “I don’t care if you approve of what I do or not, I’m doing it anyway.”

      As for the other, we all have walls that we put up for protection. Thanks for the comment.

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