Robert Frost was not just a writer. Frost was, more importantly, an American writer whose works epitomized the Modernist literary movement, and in turn represented the mood and minds of a nation. Frost remains emblematic of a specific time in our country. Through the words of the poet, readers of his day could see a real-time reflection of themselves – visible in Frost’s verses were the hopes and apprehensions that marked the first half of the twentieth- century.
However, in his ability to express this unlikely mixture of cynicism and sentiment, Frost did more than capture the attention of his contemporaries he captured “the times” for all times. A modern reader of Frost is a reader of American history; not in days and dates, but in feeling and thought. While any of the works from Frost’s prolific collection could be used to validate this thought, it is upon “… a road less travelled” in the lines of “The Mending Wall” that we will venture to explore and understand the power and importance of one man’s talents.
Robert Frost was a lecturer, poet, and teacher. When he was nineteen and working in a ill in Lawrence, Massachussetts, the Independent accepted and published “My Butterfly, an Elegy”. This poem began Frost’s career as one of America’s great poets. Rugged New England farm life was the inspiration for many of his poems. Like much of Frost’s poetry, “The Mending Wall” appears on the surface to be simple and plain. However, a closer study will reveal subtleties and depth.
In the opening lines the speaker is true to this prosaic tone, “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. Upon first examining these lines, it seems no more than a group of matter-of-fact statements pertaining to this deteriorating stone wall. Yet, under scrutiny these lines of seeming simplicity reveal a wealth of profundity. The “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” destroys the structure with “frozen-ground-swell” could be construed as Nature defying the works human hands.
However, it probable that which does not “love a wall” is not simple nature, but Human Nature. The “frozen-ground-swell” is the cold heart that permeates the building of such a wall, and the ventual warming of the heart “spills the upper boulders in the sun”. For Frost, a man living in a time when the industrial revolution and all the advances of the new century, the twentieth- century, were making our fenced-in walls archaic structures in an emerging homogeneoous society.
In fact, the gaps in the wall were big enough that “… two could pass abreast. ” This is an important idea. The holes in the wall were not for one, but for two. A fence has two sides, two identities, two purposes. In the gaping holes of the wall, both that which is restricted and that which restricts, are allowed simultaneous freedom of movement. This is an exemplary idea for a time when many restraints in America, socially and physically, were being defied.
Further in the poem, the speaker tells of the mending of the wall with, “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. ” The idea that this wall is in a state of disrepair is an indication that the structure itself, the wall, is of little consequence. If any real importance were given to the stones that make the wall, it would have been unlikely that the peaker or the neighbor would have allowed it to become dilapidated.
When the neighbors “meet to walk the line” it is with the intention of setting the wall “between us once again”. The tone suggests that it is a metaphorical wall that the narrator and the neighbor are setting. Each remains on his own side, which speaks quietly of some sense of fear and selfishness as well. Instead of helping each other on one side at a time, they stay within the confines of the wall. Yet, there seems to be a desire to visit the very person the wall holds back, at least on the side f the narrator, who initiates the mending of this wall in the first place.
There is a fear of solititude which decrees that they will work together, and a selfish desire not to inovlve themselves too directly in the affairs of the other, which keeps them on their respective sides of In further describing the labor of mending the wall, the speaker describes the stones that seperate narrator from neighbor, “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 ingers rough with handling them/Oh, just another kind of out-door game,/One on a side.
It comes to little more”. Notice what the speaker says in the “spell” – “stay where you are until our backs are turned. ” There is an implication here, at least on the part of the narrator, that she cares little for the actual mending of the wall. An indifference to the effectiveness of these repairs suggests that this entire undertaking is no more than an exhibition. It is not the wall that needs mending, it is the relationship of the speaker and her companion in labor. This activity is iewed by the narrator as little more than an outdoor game – “one on a side”.
Yet, despite the speakers seemingly playful attitiude to this two-fold activity, further along in the poem, we glimpse for the first time, the neighbors attitiude, which is markedly different – “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’. The neighbor is a man of cliches, acting on the instinct of tradition, unlike the narrator who is doing little more than playing an “outdoor game”.
It is in these lines hat Frost best represents not only a human condition as old as human conditions, but one quite prevalent in his contemporary society – the struggle between the old and the new, the struggle between tradition and change. Notice this idea as it represented in the lines, “Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder/If I could put a notion in his head:/’Why do they make good neighbors? ” The speaker now can be seen as not just the mischief of Spring; she is Spring. She is that which is new, the coming of a new season. She is warmer than the neighbor with all his chilly tradition and cold cliches.
It is the narrator’s desire to mend her neighbor’s thinking. She wishes to “put a notion in his head. ” However, he wishes only to mend this physical wall, not question the presence of the mental walls that brought this structure into being. In the last lines of the poem, Frost drives his thesis home with trademark subtleties that made his writings so rich and full of depth, despite there commonplace appearance.
The narrator muses, “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 offence. This is the Spring in the narrator, not satisfied with he cliche of tradition with which the neighbor identitifes, but as typifies Spring, some of the new life that warmer weather brings is not always new – sometimes it just a life reborn. While the narrator has evolved from the stagnation of tradition that the neighbor embraces, she is still somewhat bound by what has been. Before she “built a wall… ” she would question its purpose, but why then does she not do the same in the rebuilding, or mending of a wall. She is, after all, the one who initiated the mending of this wall.
Did she “give offence” to her neighbor in this nitiation? Regardless of the flaws in the narrator’s thinking, it is still obvious that she is well intentioned, “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. ” The speaker longs for the neighbor to think about, question, even challenge the tradition that the wall represents. It is important to note that the speaker does not say, “Elves,” she only wishes to do so. Unless the neighbor questions the thing for himself, nothing has changed.
If she instills any idea in him, here is the risk that this too will mutate, generations hence, into just another tradition. It is the act of individual thought that the speaker wishes for her neighbor. She wants him to question the wall as a result of his own free-thinking, not due to anyone else’s influence, including her own. The speaker likens the neighbor to a cave-man with the lines, “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… “. The speaker sees the neighbor as a symbol of the past, a cave-man stuck in the Dark Ages.
He acts without thought. The tradition is instinctive for him, something not to be questioned, but rather done without question. It is not his place or his right to question – “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 neighbor is doing nothing more than what his father instilled in him, and more than likely it was instilled in his father by his grandfather, and so on. In a time when the country is re-examining and mending many of its “walls” Robert Frost’s call to question the walls we build is sound and timely advice.