The Mending Wall Metaphor

In Mending Wall, poet Robert Frost reflects on the mysterious way gaps in the walls on the boundary of his property appear over the winter.

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.

He describes how efforts to rebuild the stone structure persist in coming undone, although its unclear how.

…The gaps I mean,
No one has seem them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there. 

The poet and his neighbour have a regular habit of meeting together on each side of the wall to rebuild it, but it seems like a game to him. The stones are so keen to fall its as if they have to put a spell on them to keep them in place, at least until their backs are turned.

Despite participating in this annual ritual the poet is not convinced that it is necessary. He reflects that his land is an apple orchard, and his neighbour has a pine forest. He questions the need to maintain the wall, given that the apples and pines are not going to interfere with each other.

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.

There is a sense of longing, as if the unseen forces that bring the wall down are trying to break down the barriers between the two men. The poet is tempted to suggest that rebuilding the wall is unnecessary, but he would rather the idea came from the other man, who seems to ‘move in darkness’ unaware of the possibility of acting differently.

He will not go behind his father’s saying…
‘Good fences make good neighbours.’

Mending Wall captures the sense of wonder we feel at the slow decay of manmade structures. We can’t see it happening, yet evidence of the gradual breakdown of things we thought fixed continues to surprises us. Its as if there is a magical process whereby the natural world resists boundaries and divisions, and attempts to re-unite that which has been divided.

The breakdown of the wall also has a deeper meaning. It points to an invisible barrier that arises between people when automatic actions based on conventional wisdom mask the reality of the current situation.  Yet despite his mischievous questioning of the necessity of the task, the poet fulfills the traditional role of a good neighbour. He sees the possibility for a deeper connection, represented by the gaps in the wall. But knows better than to disturb the musings of the other man, who takes comfort in the security that structure and tradition have to offer. Perhaps it is not whether they rebuild the wall that is at issue, but whether good relations depend on it.

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