Friday, December 5, 2008

Response to Mending Wall

Mending Wall
by Robert Frost

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.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour 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.
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!'
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:
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.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbours.'
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But 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 offence.
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. 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.
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
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 neighbours.'

For long years, fencing has been an important aspect of farm life. It seems that it doesn't matter how well a fence was erected, periodically there needs to be repairs. It is a mystery, but:

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall,"

More often than not the cause of the wall's decline is unseen and unknown, and inevitably there is a need for annual repairs. Robert Frost's 'Mending Wall' is about this task.

Beyond the mere description, the poet is trying to show how often these kinds of tasks are completed out of habit or tradition, without considering whether they are necessary in the first place. Walls are for keeping in and for keeping out. But what if one side is "pine" and the other is "apple",

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines. I tell him.

Surely there is no need for a wall in such circumstances. If there is no need for a wall, then its absence would save unnecessary work each year. In the face of such logic, many cling to the habits of the past and will not go past their "father's saying." Walls are not just physical, they are also social. We often say, "there is a wall between us" when we are referring to the break-down of communication. such communication break-downs can often have their origin in ill-considered habit and tradition.

There are several moods or feelings expressed in the poem. The poet gently laughs at the farmer bound in his tradition, when he says, "Springs is the mischief in me, ..." And light playfulness is suggested in such lines as:

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. ...

however, there is also a realisation that such fixed ideas can have awful consequences:

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

there is suggested the thought that social and personal alienation and estrangement from fellow creatures results.

The poet has chosen the blank verse form because it first of all structurally suggests the wall that is being discussed in the poetry. The regular feet of the iambic pentameter suggests the very stones that are being placed one upon another, and the solid mass of words, almost column-like, gives the appearance of a wall.

the language is conversational, and suggests a pastoral tone. If we heard the poem read, we would be hard pressed to discover the regular rhythm. But its rhythm is regular, and so it holds together as a poem, rather than as a straight piece of prose.

Frost uses many striking images, and only a few need be cited as examples. The line

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

provides a powerful image. First, the suggestion of antiquity underscores the notion that the farmer's ideas are aged: they are out of the contemporary context. Second, it is the image of an armed savage, and this suggests that traditions can become lethal; they can be killers by preventing interaction and progression.

The flowing rhythm of the poem helps to give it its conversational quality. It moves slowly, which helps to suggest a country setting. A good example is when he writes, "an old-stone savage armed." Here he uses alliteration with "s" sound and assonance with the "a" sound. The techniques are subtly used, but used none the less, to great effect.

Having read the poem several times, there is much to be gained from the poet's insights. He challenges our security in the familiar. Is it possible, that we are actually at war with the best like a "savage armed", by clinging to what we feel comfortable with? We need to analyse closely those things we hold dear, and ask ourselves, "to whom I was like to give offence."

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