Thoughts on "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost
The choice of the word “something” is important. It doesn’t say “someone”, so for now, we can just call it a force. However, it is humanized by the word “love”. Love is rarely attached to something without thoughts or desires. Even animals aren’t really thought of as having capacity to consciously love. Also the choice of the word “love” is interesting because it does not say “doesn’t like”. The fact that it says “doesn’t love” implies that someone else must “love” it in contrast. Not loving doesn’t imply dislike; it implies something closer to indifference. However the “something” not only allows the wall to dissipate, it also causes it, by “send”ing the “frozen-ground-swell” to disrupt the wall during the winter months and “spill”ing the “upper boulders in the sun” perhaps during the summer months. So it is important to keep in mind that, although the “something” may not hate the wall, it is intentionally causing it’s destruction.
The “something”, which we are calling a force, therefore, has some sort of command over nature. Often forces of “things” with that power fall under the category of either the supernatural of the divine. There is a tricky moment in which the speaker addresses the possibility that the force could be “elves”. But he then decides that it is “not elves exactly”, implying that the force is probably either unimaginable or not supernatural. Perhaps nature itself, or some unspecified form of God himself is the perpetrator destroying the “mending wall”. However, with the malicious intent and prankster quality of an elf it seems to only fiddle with the wall when the speaker and his neighbor’s “backs are turned”.
The purpose that the “something” serves is perhaps more important than what it actually is. The “something” conveniently provides gaps in which “two can pass abreast”. When two people walk abreast it would imply companionship or friendship between them. The speaker and his neighbor? Does the force want to tighten their bond by removing the barrier between them?
The “something” is problematic to the speaker because it produces both the opposing force to the neighbor and the poem’s conflict. If the “something”’s motivation is to reinforce the bond between neighbors by eliminating the wall, and the neighbor’s motivation is to reinforce the bond by maintaining the wall, than the two represent opposing strategies of neighborly tolerance. However, being tolerant of your neighbor and going on long strolls “abreast” are very different things.
The speaker and the neighbor are both mending the wall, but they are really participating in very different activities. The speaker sees mending the wall as a means towards maintaining the usual purpose of a wall, that purpose being to divide and separate the two lands. However, the speaker notes that his land poses no threat to his neighbor’s. As he has an apple orchard that wouldn’t intrude with his neighbor’s pine, and as neither of them own cows, the wall seems useless. Therefore, the speaker doesn’t understand why his neighbor is adamant about it’s repair. However, for the neighbor, the wall must symbolize something beyond the normal function of a wall. “Good fences make good neighbors” is his mantra. We aren’t tuned into why this is, but we know that he has somehow equated the state of the fence to the state of their relationship, which he clearly values. This speaker, however, remains in the dark, and continues to challenge the neighbor’s strange reasoning. We might say it’s the principle of the thing, and not the action itself that causes the neighbor to give such attention to the wall year after year.
“Oh, just another kind of outdoor game.” The “oh” of the sentence indicates a pause from the explanation and some sort of reflection on it. It’s safe to assume that the “game” is describing the action of mending the wall. As opposed to work, “game” has connotations of a group activity, or involving more than one. A game is a recreational pastime, usually insignificant or juvenile. When he calls the wall a “game”, he’s stripping it of the importance that his neighbor places on it; as he says “there where it is we do not need the wall”. The sentence is followed by “one on a side”. A side of what? The wall? Is it only a game on the speakers side and not on the neighbors? This line is both vague and personal. It adds subjectivity to the experience of repairing the wall. Instead of praising an activity, as most previous poems would, this poem spends a lot of time intentionally demeaning its subject. It’s a poem about explaining away an actions importance, while at the same time, putting great importance on it. The fact that the mending of the wall is an “outdoor game”, in itself, makes the experience one of a kind.
In building and rebuilding the wall both the speaker and the neighbor have the same purpose: to remain “good neighbors”. What a “good neighbor” might mean to one, might mean something very different to the other. However, the neighbor rebuilds the wall because of this value, “his father’s saying”. The speaker’s concern is indifferent to the opposing forces of the “something” and the neighbor. However he chooses the side that loves the wall in order to not give offense in disrespecting his neighbor’s wishes. He obviously values their mutual cooperation, knowing that any disrespect may cause consequences in the future which could have easily been avoided, by causing little harm to himself once a year, and pleasing his neighbor infinitely. In other words, the narrators decision to rebuild the wall each spring is simply a weighing of the scales, finding it to be heavier on the neighbor’s side. This shows us that his primary concern is to maintain harmony between himself and those he interacts with.
The little ritual, of repairing the wall, is in itself, motivation. The situation is very obviously representative of their entire relationship: both men on opposite sides mutually participating in a “game” together, while working to keep separate for the greater good. The yearly activity shows a kind of brotherhood and a togetherness. It makes you wonder if the neighbor gets a thrill out of the bonding activity they experience each year, when their relationship without the wall would otherwise be either isolated or indifferent. He perpetuates the task each year, knowing that they will need to do it again. The act of separation is what brings them together. The neighbor knows it’s a task they can succeed in as long as the rocks can stay in place “until our backs are turned”. We can almost imagine the neighbor sitting at home marking off the calendar excitedly for this event.
What seems most modern about this poem is the speaker’s compliance with mending the wall each year, and his experience with this dilemma. Because the wall has no function as an actual wall, he is forced to abandon that the wall is anything but a concept in itself. The wall needs to be rebuilt each year. It needs to not only remaining standing, it needs to remain standing for something. Yet, neither us nor the speaker have any clue as to what that something is that it stands for. The poem is full of “somethings” and abstractions. What is beautiful about it is that the poet must retain his complete trust in his neighbor, based on little to no evidence, that the activity will bear some sort of fruit. And he does this simply to see him satisfied! It is from the blind trust of a logical man simply for the sake of pleasing another man that the poem draws all its power.