Study Guide

Mending Wall

Mending Wall Summary

The speaker immediately tells us that something is amiss in the countryside. Something in the wide blue yonder does not like walls. He and his neighbor must get together every spring to walk the whole length of the stone wall that separates their properties, and to fix places where the wall has crumbled.

Then, our speaker begins to question the need for walls. He grows apples and his neighbor grows pine trees. His neighbor says that "good fences make good neighbors." The speaker becomes a bit mischievous in the spring weather, and wonders if he can try to make his neighbor reconsider the wall. His neighbor looks like a menacing caveman as he puts a rock into the wall, and repeats, "Good fences makes good neighbors."

  • Section I (lines 1-4)

    Line 1

    Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

    • Our speaker cuts to the chase in this first line. Something is amiss in the world of walls.
    • "Something" is a wishy-washy word, and just about anything under the sun can qualify as "something." Even a person.
    • By using "something" instead of "someone," our speaker suggests that humans are not the only wall-destroying culprits around; there are things out there as well.
    • We begin to channel Sherlock Holmes as we strap on our detective hats. Folks, we are smack dab in the middle of a thrilling, blood-curdling mystery – about walls.

    Lines 2-3

    That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
    And spills the upper boulders in the sun,

    • So, this "something" wields magical powers, apparently. Whoever or whatever it is, it aces Physics, because it knows that water particles swell when frozen, and shrink when warm.
    • Our speaker hypothesizes that the Something asks nature to cool down the earth below the wall and warm up the boulders in the wall, thus wrecking havoc upon the wall itself. The boulders start to crumble from all of the natural action.

    Line 4

    And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

    • As a result of said natural action, the wall has gaps big enough for two people to pass through comfortably. Holding hands. That’s a big gap.
    • And, if two people can pass through the wall easily, just IMAGINE what else can pass through. A golf cart. A baby elephant. A rickshaw. The list goes on and on.
  • Section II (lines 5-9)

    Line 5

    The work of hunters is another thing:

    • You mean to tell us that there might be more than just one thing trying to destroy walls? In addition to the Something alluded to in line 1, our speaker tells us that hunters are culprits as well.
    • However, their "work" (read: wall-destroying techniques) is very different from the Something’s wall-destroying techniques. Let’s examine.

    Lines 6-7

    I have come after them and made repair
    Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

    • Our speaker must clean up after the hunters.
    • He says, "I have come after them," instead of "I came after them," giving us the impression that this is a common occurrence.
    • That must not be very much fun. These hunters are like 4 year-olds – they play all the time, but they don’t pick up after themselves. The speaker follows like a parent or a chaperon, rebuilding the parts of the wall that they destroy. Naughty hunters.

    Lines 8-9

    But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
    To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean
    ,

    • Little bunnies like to hide inside the wall from the hunters, and, so, in turn, the hunters tear down the wall to find them. Poor little bunnies.
    • However, the hunters aren’t the selfish wall-wreckers that we think they are – they’re merely trying to please their bunny-loving dogs. Wow.
    • Sherlock, what do you say we take a step back, and look at the characters involved in this wall mystery so far: we have the Something of line 1 (a quiet suspect), the hunters (quite noisy and destructive culprits), bunnies (innocent, little creatures just looking for safety), and dogs (who want to eat the bunnies).
  • Section III (lines 10- 11)

    Lines 10-11

    No one has seen them made or heard them made,
    But at spring mending-time we find them there
    .

    • We get a bit distracted by all of the bunnies and the dogs, and we hear a lot of barking and shouting in our heads. We keep thinking of the hunt scene from Mary Poppins – you know, right before she sings "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?"
    • Our speaker, sensing our sensory overload, steers us back on course. At the end of line 9, he says, "the gaps I mean," reminding us of the matter at hand (the broken wall), and reminding us about the mysterious Something that destroys this wall.
    • The Something is very different from the hunters and their dogs (the speaker knows all about them). The Something is far more covert. In fact, it’s so covert that no one sees or hears it make gaps in the wall.
    • The speaker says that, in Spring, "we find them there." Who is "we?" Is there yet another character on our hands?
    • Well, at least, now we know when mending-time takes place: the Spring. That makes sense to us. Spring is a time of spring-cleaning, April showers, and little birdies chirping.
  • Section IV (lines 12-15)

    Lines 12-15

    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
    .

    • Our speaker has a neighbor.
    • This neighbor lives beyond the hill (we love hills), and, come spring, our speaker tells the neighbor that the wall needs some mending. The two check their calendars, and decide to meet on a day when they’re both free.
    • At this point in time, the two walk the whole length of the wall which separates their properties. Our speaker walks on his side of the wall, and his neighbor walks on the other side of the wall.
    • They fix the wall as they go. Good times.
  • Section V (lines 16-19)

    Lines 16-19

    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!'

    • As the speaker and his neighbor walk the length of the wall, they pick up boulders along the way. Let’s say a boulder falls onto our speaker’s side of the wall – it’s his job to replace said boulder as they walk along. Our speaker begins to pay serious attention to these boulders. Some of them look like loaves of bread. Others look like perfectly formed tennis balls.
    • The point is that a lot of them are rounded, and our speaker and his neighbor have a difficult time putting these little boulders back into the wall. The boulders don’t really want to stay in the right place. We get the sense that the boulders roll off as soon as the speaker and his neighbor try to replace them.
    • We imagine that this process is like trying to repair a really crumbly cake you’ve just made – you keep trying to fix the sides with icing, but it keeps falling apart! Next time, add more butter.
    • The process of replacing the little boulders is so frustrating that the speaker and his neighbor resort to talking to the little rocks, and, in talking to them, they come up with a kind of spell. "Stay where you are until our backs our turned" doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as "bibbity, bobbity, boo," but we guess it will do in a pinch. We wonder why the spell isn’t simply, "Stay where you are!"
    • Why must the speaker and his neighbor wish the boulders to stay in the right place "until our backs are turned?" It’s as though the speaker and the neighbor surrender to the fact that the wall will fall apart again soon. They simply want the wall to stay intact in their presence.
    • We use spells all the time – spells like "turn green, turn green!" while waiting at a stoplight.
  • Section VI (lines 20-22)

    Lines 20-22

    We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
    Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
    One on a side. It comes to little more:

    • As the speaker and his neighbor walk the length of their wall, their hands get sore from handling all of the rocks.
    • The speaker likens the whole process to a game, like volleyball maybe. The wall is like a net, and the speaker and his neighbor are the two opposing teams.
    • The speaker says that such a ritual "comes to little more." Mending the wall is just a game to him. There’s no deeper purpose.
  • Section VII (lines 23-26)

    Lines 23-26

    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
    .

    • Newsflash! Our speaker slips in a little commentary here in Line 22. He indicates that the precious wall, the one that he spends all of this time talking about, is actually unnecessary.
    • Wait a minute. We think we’re here to uncover the mystery of the wall-destroyer. Now, we find out that our speaker isn’t really that into the wall itself.
    • Hmm. If we are Sherlockian about this, we just might suspect our speaker as the unknown wall-destroyer.
    • Our speaker wants to convince his neighbor that the wall is plain unnecessary. He uses the old apples-aren’t-carnivorous argument, and tells his neighbor that the apples that he grows will never eat or disturb the pine trees which grow on his neighbor’s property.
  • Section VIII (lines 27-29)

    Lines 27-29

    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:

    • In response to the apples-aren’t-carnivorous argument, the neighbor simply says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
    • Believe it or not, this is a famous proverb (a common saying that expresses a truth) around for centuries. You can interpret it how you will, but we take it to mean that this neighbor likes his privacy and his own space.
    • If he posted an ad on Craigslist, looking for a new roommate, it would probably read something like, "Quiet person seeks even quieter roommate for a two-bedroom apartment. Roommate must stay clean and keep to him/herself."
    • Our speaker becomes a bit mischievous, however (spring will do that to you). He desperately wants to stir the pot and challenge the "good fences make good neighbors" proverb. He wishes that he can somehow inspire his neighbor to rethink the whole wall thing.
  • Section IX (lines 30-37)

    Lines 30-37

    '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

    • Our speaker wants to know why good fences make good neighbors.
    • Are fences and walls good because they keep the peace between neighbors by ensuring that neither property is destroyed? If so, what could possibly destroy pine trees and apple orchards?
    • The speaker understands the neighbor’s philosophy, if one person has cows and wants to keep the cows from wrecking havoc. BUT, THERE ARE NO COWS (we wish there were).
    • Our speaker gets a little saucy at this moment, and we infer that the wall was never his idea – his neighbor built the wall.
    • The speaker puts on his "judgmental" hat and tells us that, if he ever builds a wall, he will first ask himself why he’s building the wall and what that wall’s purpose is.
    • For example, is the wall’s purpose to keep cows at bay, or to keep them from escaping? Will he mean the wall to discourage visitors, or to keep small children from wandering into the street?
    • Our speaker also tells us that, if he ever is to build a wall (which, at this point, we’re pretty sure he never will), he will first ask himself whether such a wall will offend anyone.
    • Indeed, our speaker’s feathers are ruffled.
    • Does anyone catch the pun in "offense?" Get it? "Offense" sounds like "a fence." Hehe.
  • Section X (lines 38-41)

    Lines 38-41

    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
    .

    • Our speaker can tell his neighbor that elves keep destroying the wall, but he knows that it’s not elves, and he wants his neighbor to come up with some silly explanation on his own.
    • He wants his neighbor to lighten up, and to question the real necessity of keeping a wall between them.
    • Suddenly, we’re back in the present tense, and our speaker sees the neighbor close by.
    • The neighbor repairs the wall, and, as he holds onto a stone, our speaker thinks that the guy looks kind of caveman-ish. It’s as if walls are holdovers from more primitive times.
  • Section XI

    Lines 42-43

    He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
    Not of woods only and the shade of trees
    .

    • The neighbor doesn’t only look a bit like an "old-stone savage," but there’s also darkness in him.
    • What kind of darkness? Well, it’s not the kind of darkness that comes from standing in the woods beneath a thick canopy of treetops. This is a different kind of darkness. We don’t know exactly what this means, but we get goosebumps.
    • There’s something a little eerie about this neighbor.
  • Section XII (lines 44-46)

    Lines 44-46

    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."

    • We learn that the neighbor’s favorite saying ("Good fences make good neighbors") actually isn’t his own, but harkens back to his father’s saying.
    • When the speaker tells us this, we see this neighbor as a man of tradition and old-school rules.
    • Rules are made to be broken.