Study Guide

Mending Wall Quotes

  • Man and the Natural World

    Something there is that doesn’t love a wall (line 1)

    Doesn’t this first line sound like a riddle, or like a sentence flipped upside down? To us, this "something" sounds pretty darn mysterious and big, and the sentence construction makes us feel like this "something" lurks very near. How would the effect differ if the first line is, "there is something that doesn’t love a wall" or even, "someone 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. (lines 2-4)

    Wow, this "something" sure is something. Here, we understand that this entity can make frost appear, and, thus, disturb the rock wall. We think it’s interesting that there are three monosyllabic verbs stacked neatly on top of each other in these lines: "that sends," "and spills," "and makes." Such verbs make us feel the momentum that they describe, and we start to think that the "something" is kind of all-powerful and cool.

    Oh, just another kind of out-door game (line 21)

    Because the rock wall is man-made, the business of sticking little, round stones back into the wall is the work of maintaining this artificial, man-made thing-a-ma-bob. The speaker’s nonchalant attitude toward the mending process contrasts with the more serious, ominous attitude that he possesses in the beginning of the poem when he says, "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall" (line 1).

    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. (lines 25-26)

    We know what the speaker means when he says that his neighbor is "all pine," and he is "apple orchard," but, at this moment, we can’t help but imagine (just for a split second), our speaker in the form of a talking, walking apple tree, and his neighbor in the form of a pine tree (like those giant tree-things in The Lord of the Rings). We also then can’t help but imagine how slightly carnivorous and threatening it would seem for our speaker, the apple tree, to eat the pinecones of his neighbor. What would be the worst-case scenario you can imagine if one of the neighbors owned cows, and if there were no wall between the properties? What damage can cows do?

    He moves in darkness as it seems to me
    Not of woods only and the shade of trees. (lines 42-43)

    Here we see nature blend with some other force? The treetops shade the neighbor, but there’s another darkness about him that the speaker can’t quite pin down. Are there any other moments in the poem where we see nature blended with other, more supernatural forces or ideas?

  • Tradition and Customs

    But spring mending-time we find them there. (line 11)

    This broken wall thing happens like clockwork. Every spring, the speaker realizes that the wall needs mending. Why spring? Is this because the speaker doesn’t really get out much in the cold New England winter, and, so, the first time he’s able to inspect the wall is when the weather gets nicer? If this is your wall, would you put up with needing to mend it every spring, or would you take some preventative measures to try to keep it intact?

    I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; (line 12)

    Does this mean that there is a hill between our speaker’s property and his neighbor’s house? In that case, between the wall and the hill there are two barriers. As part of the annual mending wall custom, we think it’s downright fascinating that the speaker is the one who starts up the "Hey, neighbor, let’s go mend that wall" conversation. But, he doesn’t like the wall, right? Or, maybe he does like the wall? Perhaps, he likes the opportunity to hang out with someone else every year, even if they are on separate sides of the wall?

    He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ (line 27)

    This neighbor is one quiet dude. We think it’s a little creepy that the only thing he says for himself (ever) is this proverb. Not only that, but it’s not a proverb that he stumbles upon himself – his father passes it down to him. We have a very hard time visualizing this neighbor because he only speaks in clichéd, proverb form. He seems like a very generalize-able man, as compared with our mischievous speaker.

    […] I see him there
    Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
    In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. (lines 39-41)

    Why is it important to know that the neighbor grasps a stone firmly from the top? What does this gesture look like? The word "armed’ is kind of a violent word, and we realize that the neighbor looks like a caveman ready to attack. In this way, the neighbor represents a physically threatening tradition.

    He will not go behind his father’s saying,
    And he likes having thought of it so well (lines 44-45)

    But, if the proverb is his father’s saying, why is the neighbor so smug about it? It’s not like he comes up with the proverb. The speaker here paints the portrait of a man very intent on living, talking, and existing like those who have come before him. This man strives to replicate, rather than create, it seems.

  • Language and Communication

    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, (lines 1-3)

    Whatever this "something" is, he/she/it certainly doesn’t know how to use his/her/its words. Did your mom, dad or grandparent ever tell you to "use your words," instead of your actions, when you were little? Well, this "something" certainly does not know how to communicate his/her/its dissatisfaction with the wall, and, instead, invites the frost to come and mess with the rocks in the wall. Something, do you need a time-out?

    I have come after them and made repair (line 6)

    Why doesn’t out speaker just ask the hunters not to hunt on his property? Or, why doesn’t he just post a sign saying, "No Bunny Hunting?" Instead, he seems locked in some passive-aggressive battle with the disrespectful hunters, and he seems content to follow after them and clean up.

    I let my neighbor know beyond the hill (line 12)

    The speaker commences the mending season. He reaches out to the neighbor. However, he doesn’t tell the neighbor that it’s time to starting mending the wall again; he simply tells this neighbor that the wall is broken in places (yet again). To us, the speaker seems like he needs a friend. Or, maybe just a hug. We’re not sure which.

    ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’ (line 19)

    The actual dialogue that he presents us with in this poem consists of a proverb and a spell. The remainder of the conversation between the speaker and neighbor relies on a second-hand report by means of our speaker. The only real communication we know that our speaker and his neighbor engage in doesn’t have anything to do with each other, but, rather, with the wall (in the form of the spell) and with the past opinions of others (in the form of the "Good fences make good neighbors" proverb). Do you find that you are hungry to hear more of their conversation, or are you satisfied with what you get in this poem?

    He will not go behind his father’s saying, (line 44)

    What does it mean to "go behind" a saying or an idea? Is it like going behind someone’s back. and doing something that you said you wouldn’t do without telling him or her? How is this phrase different from "reject," as in, "He will not reject his father’s saying?" To us, "go behind" sounds a bit more undercover, and the speaker almost seems like a teenager daring his friend to do something that his parents forbid him to do. The speaker doesn’t seem to judge the neighbor for believing in the proverb, but he does seem to judge him for his inability to think outside the box, at least temporarily.

  • Exploration

    But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
    To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean, (lines 8-9)

    Does exploration involve an end-goal? Like the speaker trying to solve the mystery of the wall, these hunters try to corner little bunny rabbits. If we follow this comparison through, the hunters parallel the "something" that doesn’t love a wall, and the bunny rabbits parallel, perhaps, the meaning of the wall. Can it be that we, the readers of this poem, are like the hunters, too? Are we trying to find something or figure something out, as well?

    No one has seen them made or heard them made,
    But at spring mending-time we find them there. (lines 10-11)

    You can’t explore something if you know what’s already there! Mending the wall continues as an annual ritual because our speaker and his neighbor do not know what causes the wall’s destruction. To us, line 10 creates a sense of mystery and of the supernatural. The process of mending the wall is very logical and methodical, but it is the result of a very illogical and unknown chain of events. Does the speaker make a whole-hearted attempt to figure out the identity of the wall-destroying culprits in this poem? Or, does he give up on that task?

    Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
    If I could put a notion in his head: (lines 28-29)

    Does the speaker seem a little arrogant to you here? Why doesn’t he just express this notion, rather than wonder if he can somehow magically make his neighbor rethink the whole wall thing? How can anyone go about putting a notion in another person’s head? At this moment, the speaker seems to explore the realms of his neighbor’s mind.

    Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
    What I was walling in or walling out, (lines 33-34)

    The speaker wishes that his neighbor will simply ask questions and investigate. Perhaps, the speaker could care less about whether or not there is a wall, and he just hungers for some good ol’ debate.

    Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
    That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him, (lines 36-37)

    When we hear this first line repeat towards the end of the poem, we realize that the speaker has not uncovered the mystery of the wall-destroyer. However, we also start to realize that the speaker’s focus shifts from the wall itself to his quiet neighbor.

  • Versions of Reality

    The work of hunters is another thing: (line 5)

    The hunters definitely destroy the wall, but their "work" is very different from the work of another force which seems to be in play. Why does the speaker bring the hunters up if he knows that they have nothing to do with the "something" that doesn’t love a wall? What role do the hunters play in this poem?

    We keep the wall between us as we go. (line 15)

    Just as the speaker and his neighbor have two different perspectives on the importance of and need for a wall, they literally have two different sides. The wall separates their versions of reality.

    We have to use a spell to make them balance:
    ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’ (lines 18-19)

    The speaker and his neighbor venture into the realm of (pretend) magic in order to fix their wall. The "spell" they invoke here makes us think of the "elves" that the speaker mentions later on in the poem. The silliness of such things contrasts greatly with the seriousness of the task at hand.

    Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
    One on a side. It comes to little more: (lines 21-22)

    The speaker reduces the job of mending the wall to an "out-door game," but we think it’s very easy for him to interpret his task in a far more serious way. At this point, we realize how much power our speaker wields in telling the story that he narrates, and in describing the scene that takes place. Do you trust this speaker?

    He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
    Not of woods only and the shade of trees. (lines 42-43)

    Again, he reminds us that the speaker relates this chain of events and this process of mending a wall as he sees it. It could be that the neighbor simply moves in the shade of the trees, but our speaker casts the entire scene in a darker, more ominous light. What kind of darkness do you think this is, and why do you think our speaker makes such a point to distinguish this darkness from the shade around him?