"Mending Wall" sounds and feels like the experience of shouting into an empty barn and seeing startled birds fly up, or of hearing the barn’s wooden walls creak and shift a little. The poem also sounds like we are in the middle of the woods, hearing nothing but the leaves rustle in the trees. Yes, siree, this is a quiet poem. The hunters and their noisy dogs are a far-off memory when the speaker tells us about them, and the their supposed noise only helps to intensify the poem’s silent nature. In fact, we can’t help but feel little lonesome, simply because there is such an absence of sounds, people, places, and things.
The presence of the spell, "Stay where you are until our backs are turned," makes us hear the two repeated lines – "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall" (1, 36) and "Good fences make good neighbors" (lines 27, 46) – in a more spell-like way. Coupling those repetitions with the quietness which lurks throughout the rest of the poem compels us to ponder that age-old question: "If a wall falls in the forest and no one is around to hear or see it fall, does it actually fall?" Work on that for us, will you?
The title reflects on the famous wall at hand, and refers to the ritual that our speaker and his neighbor undergo every spring to fix this wall. That’s all well and good, but we have a few questions about this seemingly self-explanatory title, Mr. Frost. For example, why didn’t you call the poem "Mending the Wall" or "Wall Mending?" The title, "Mending Wall," makes us think that this wall is a supernatural thing with healing powers which magically mend any broken thing that you give it.
We also can’t help but think about the medical connotation at the heart of the word "mend," as in "I’m on the mend," or "my wound is mending well." The title also sounds to us like a short-hand message left on our speaker’s front door, explaining his whereabouts to people who happen to visit while he’s away (kind of like a "gone fishing" sign). Whatever the case may be, the title draws our attention to the star of the poem, the wall. Perhaps you’ve seen this wall in other hits, such as "Humpty Dumpty" and Wall-E… hehe. The –ing ending of "mending" makes us think that the mending process is in the works, and it gives the title a little momentum and movement (like the little round stones that keep falling out of the wall).
Read this poem, and then close your eyes. What do you see? Perhaps you see a New England countryside, muddy and green after a spring rain? Do you see an ancient, crumbling rock wall running alongside an apple orchard and some tall pine trees? Or, maybe you see two men in the distance, kneeling in the mud, trying to fit little boulders into the spaces of the rock wall. You might also hear the distant sound of hunters and their dogs chasing after a little bunny rabbit. As you walk along, the sun filters through the treetops and bathes everything in shadows which shake with the breeze. Do you smell those pine trees?
This is not a place where ferocious animals dwell. In fact, dogs and humans are the most ferocious creatures here. We can assume that the winters here are pretty rough and snowy, so we can’t blame our speaker for wanting to get out and about in the spring. We would want to walk the whole length of a rock wall, too, if we’d been cooped up in our little house all winter long. The leaves are so thick above our heads that things get a little dim in these woods. This is not suburbia, folks; this is genuine country, where neighbors live miles from one another. We don’t know about you, but we’re starting to feel just a wee bit lonely.
Don’t mind our speaker. He’s just going through a rebellious phase. Pinning him down is a tricky task. He seems to be getting a little antsy in life. He’s just spent a snowy winter in his New England home, and he’s itching to talk to somebody. Unfortunately, that "somebody" only speaks five words. Ever.
At first, our speaker gets us all riled up about the wall, and about how unfair it is that parts of the wall keep getting destroyed and broken. He earns our sympathy when he talks about cleaning up after the reckless hunters. We start to understand the annual ritual of mending the rock wall, and we know that he sets this mending process in motion.
But, then, our speaker throws a wrench into the whole poem. He begins to talk about how silly walls are, and how unnecessary this particular wall is. He thinks revolutionary thoughts about inspiring his neighbor to reconsider the wall. He hopes to implant a notion in his stubborn neighbor’s head that would allow him to question the need for a wall. Like a teenager, our speaker challenges the necessity of something that’s a big part of his life. He also acts a wee bit condescending towards his neighbor, calling him a "savage."
However, as the poem moves along, it becomes less and less clear how exactly our speaker feels about this particular wall. At the end of the day, he might not give two hoots about the rock wall, but, rather, he craves a little dialogue and interrogation. Maybe our speaker simply can’t accept a task without questioning why that task is important or necessary. We like him because he stirs the pot, and he asks some good questions. Without him, this poem would just concern a wall that never gets fixed.
Even if we’re not quite sure who continues to destroy the wall, and even if we don’t know specifically what our speaker wants, we have a pretty good fix on what is going down in this poem: There’s a wall that either needs mending, or tearing down. What’s so great about this poem is that we can simply walk into it, and revel in the mysterious quietness that inhabits the dark woods. The language makes us feel as if we’re staring into a crystal clear creek.
This San Francisco-born poet loved the New England countryside, and many of his poems dwell in the eerie quiet of the woods. He lived on a farm in Derry, New Hampshire for much of his life, so he was well acquainted with the work that country life demands. Tasks like apple picking, mowing, milking, sewing, digging, mending, and building are prominent throughout Frost’s poems. Frost’s easy language complements these descriptions of farm life.
By "easy," we don’t mean "the opposite of difficult." Rather, we mean that Frost captures people’s natural rhythms of speech. If we overhear someone say, "My apple trees will never get across/ and eat the cones under pines," (lines 25-26), we won’t necessarily think, "Oh, they’re speaking in poetry." Instead, we’ll probably chuckle and say, "No, your apple trees probably won’t!" Unlike many of his contemporaries who experiment with language in all kinds of crazy ways, Frost doesn’t try to jar his readers in such a way. He wants his readers to think about the universal ideas that he kicks around, and to hear the meaning of the poem unfold as they read it.
It may come as no surprise to us that Frost loses many family members and loved ones in his lifetime, outliving several of his children and his wife. He is no stranger to grief and loneliness, and struggles with suicidal tendencies for a time. His poems seem as much about what is discussed and what is present, as they are about what isn’t talked of and what is absent. For example, the speaker begins "Mending Wall" by saying, "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall." It is precisely this something, this unknown ghostlike thing, that lurks in almost all of Frost’s poems. Even as our speaker and his neighbor go about the quiet task of mending their wall, we feel that, at any minute, something drastic can happen, or some thing can appear.
Frost writes this poem in blank verse, meaning that it doesn’t rhyme (sad), but it does have interesting structure stuff going on. The poem loosely follows an iambic pentameter structure. Let’s get our hands dirty and break down this architecture. Counting is always a good way to begin. We know that the poem has 46 lines, making "there where it is we do not need the wall" (line 23) the dead center of the poem, which is the exact point at which we figure out that our speaker isn’t so gung-ho about the wall that he mends.
The majority of the lines in this poem have 10 syllables (in true iambic pentameter fashion), but we can find ten lines which have eleven syllables. When we encounter these lines, they momentarily throw our internal rhythm off kilter, and make us pay extra attention to the lines themselves. An example of this comes in line 8, when the speaker says, "But they would have the rabbit out of hiding." The eleventh syllable here seems to parallel the actual act of trying to force a bunny out of his hole. The last syllable of this line falls off the edge of the poem in the same way that a bunny falls out of its hiding place when it’s pursued by ferocious dogs.
Frost repeats two lines in this poem. Can you tell which lines they are? You guessed it: "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall," and "Good fences make good neighbors." The repetitions of these lines, as well as the repetition of certain phrases throughout the poem, emphasize the whole "this is my side of the argument, and that’s your side of the argument" theme. The poem is not broken into stanzas, which makes the poem itself look visually like a rock wall turned on its side. We can see the "gaps" in the wall when we look at the way that the line endings form an imperfect line all the way down the page.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The wall is the shining star of this poem. It unites our speaker and his neighbor, but separates them as well. As we hear the neighbor speak the proverb twice ("Good fences make good neighbors"), we start to consider all of the wall-like structures in our life: fences, gates, boundaries, lines, etc. The wall serves as a canvas upon which a lot of complex ideas about the ways in which people, and their relationships with others, are painted and discussed.
Nature seems to act as the third wheel in this poem – the silent character swirling around the speaker and his neighbor. Although he doesn’t explicitly describe the landscape, we see it very clearly, and we seem to know what the seasons are like in this part of the world. Similarly, tradition seems to be the silent subject over which the speaker and his neighbor wrestle. The neighbor upholds his ancestors’ way of life, while our speaker questions this philosophy.
Despite the eerie calm that distinguishes this poem, you might have to work hard to come up with a romantic subtext.