Background to Poem Essay

Published: 2021-08-01 06:55:08
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Category: Poem

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– Mending Wall is part of Robert Frost’s second anthology of poems entitled North of Boston published in 1914
– Having been a farmer, Frost is heavily influenced by nature, resulting in the natural settings and imagery used in many of his poems like the Wood Pile, After Apple Picking and Mending Wall
– On the surface, Mending Wall appears to be a poem where the speaker contemplates why he and his neighbour have to rebuild the wall demarcating their respective farmlands each spring.
– However, on a deeper level, the poem is less about the physical separation of the wall and more about the divergences in the modes of thought of two individuals and how the speaker tries to reconcile the mental differences that exist between him and his neighbour
Structure of Commentary
Given the use of enjambment and blank verse in Mending Wall, I shall adopt a linear analysis of the poem in order to trace the evolving mindset of the speaker as the poem progresses. However, I shall be focusing on three main points in this analysis:
– The portrayal of the speaker and his neighbour in the poem (1)
– The creation and use of irony (2)
– The changing meaning of the wall (3)
General Observations
– The poem can be seen to be divided into two portions, each ending with the neighbour’s unchanging apothegm: “Good fences make good neighbours”.
– Each portion contains its own unique significance to the subject matter of the poem. From lines 1 to 26, the speaker presents his argument against the absurdity of building the wall, to which his neighbour rebuts his stoic addage. From lines 28 to 42, the speaker develops a contentiousness against his neighbour, elucidating the personal differences that exist between them, ironically revealing the need for both characters to reconcile and mend fences, or in this case, the wall.
– As the poem progresses, there is increasing tension between the speaker and his neighbour as the speaker becomes increasingly aware of the differences in mindset between them. It is the speaker’s very own contention against the unpragmatic existence of the wall that places him in opposition to his conservative neighbour, ironically confining the speaker himself inside of his own beliefs, rendering him just as inflexible and unchanging as his “old stone savage” neighbour.
– By the end of the poem, the wall has become a symbol for the barrier between human contact and understanding. It is erected by all that is primitive, fearful, irrational and hostile (i.e. The neighbour) and is opposed by a higher, more progressive “something” (i.e. The speaker, and arguably Frost himself) who have become allegorical figures representing opposing views of freedom and confinement, reason and rigidity, tolerance and violence, civilisation and savagery.
Lines 0-4
– The title of the poem is significant as it creates an arresting image in the mind of the reader of two men mending the wall. Immediately this contextualises the literal subject matter of the poem, aiding understanding on the reader’s part as the poem develops
– In the first four lines of the poem, Frost reveals the speaker to be of a causal, light-hearted sort. Although there is a sense of whimsy and mystery about that “something that doesn’t love a wall”, the speaker introduces no complex subjects for the reader to consider. However, through his language and the rhythm of the lines, readers sense the underlying conflict in this poem
– From these few lines, readers also gain an idea of the speaker’s character. His discursive indirection, portrayed through the combination of the indefinite pronoun “Something” and the loose expletive construction “there is”, the speaker evokes a sense of ruminative vagueness and ambiguity even before the curious subject of walls is introduced.
– The use of informal, convoluted language provides a linguistic texture for the dramatic conflict, between the mindsets of the speaker and his neighbour, that develops later in the poem. The employment of anastrophe (inversion of grammatical syntax) serves to introduce the speaker as an unorthodox character with an unorthodox mindset (1)
– The speaker’s lively imagination is revealed (1) through his diction in describing the destruction of the wall. “Something… That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it… And spills the upper boulder in the sun,… And make gaps even two can pass abreast” The speaker anthropomorphizes this mysterious, seemingly intelligent force that wrecks the wall from year to year. The three active verbs used in lines 2 to 4 (sends…spills…make), create a sense of dynamism in the destruction of the wall, calling into question the need for the wall at all if nature herself opposes its existence.
– Frost’s diction in line 2, “…frozen-ground-swell…”, seems to imply that winter’s frost is what undermines the stability of the wall. The concealed pun indicates that Frost himself is against the existence of walls.
Lines 5-11
– “The work of hunters is another thing”: The speaker digresses from his preoccupation with the mysterious force that “doesn’t love a wall” into a discussion about hunters who actively tear down the wall in search of rabbits and the rebuilding that follows after, “I have come after them and made repair where they have left not one stone on a stone”. Again the speaker’s whimsy and casualness is shown (1) in yet another inversion of syntax (have left not, instead of have not left). The indulgently convoluted style of the speaker evinces his unorthodox character and unrestrained imagination.
– The speaker’s mention that the hunters would “have the rabbit out of hiding”, contains connotations of the exposure of vulnerabilities. The rabbit appears so defenseless against marauding hunters and dog, causing the reader to reconsider the necessity of the wall as it protects our vulnerable aspects from external forces. At this point, the speaker seems to be challenging the implications in his earlier statement, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, and his opposition towards the existence of the wall, showing presence of progressive thought in the speaker’s mind.
– The speaker returns to his original obsession over the mysterious force that “spills the upper boulder in the sun”. He continues in his characteristic ambiguity, “No one has seem them made or heard them made, but at spring mending-time we find them there” (ll. 10-11) Causing the reader to question the necessity of the wall again, since the boulders are always displaced, with suspicious regularity, each spring.
– It seems that the speaker’s actions are governed by the surprising regularity of nature’s forces, representing a respect for tradition that is uncharacteristic of the speaker (Requires substantiation)
Lines 12-15
– It is surprising that the speaker, in spite of all his progressiveness and opposition to the wall, would bow to tradition and “let neighbour know beyond the hill”, in defiance of that “Something… that doesn’t love a wall”, which I have taken to represent the sentiment of the speaker himself.
– Although the speaker goes against his own beliefs, by conforming to the tradition and rigidity of his neighbour, this gesture not only reinforces his unorthodox character but also reveals his flexibility and cooperativeness (1), unconfined by his personal thoughts and feelings, unlike his neighbour, ironically keeping in line with his ideas of freedom and progressiveness (2).
– Irony is also created when we consider the motivations for rebuilding the wall. The wall is built to isolate the speaker and his neighbour from each other but in order to rebuild the wall, the two are forced to come together and interact, defeating the purpose of the wall. The irony here causes the reader to question the necessity of the wall as proponent of isolation if the very act of rebuilding it contradicts its intended purpose. (2)
– The reassertion of rhythmic uniformity of the first 4 lines in these 4 lines–10 syllables with an iambic meter–mimic the reassertion of the wall itself by the speaker and his neighbour, and the return to order and tradition. Through the interchanging use of different meters throughout the poem, Frost portrays the speaker to have a certain flexibility: While he unsettles walls, he also repairs; he is at once Apollonian and Dionysian; favouring both order and rebellion to the same extent.
– At this juncture, the wall becomes a symbol of the mental barriers that exist between people (3) in addition to its literal representation of a wall dividing the farms of two farmers. While rebuilding the wall, the two men are walking on parallel paths, never to truly meet each other: “…we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go” (ll.14-16) The act of rebuilding the wall through closing the gaps in it, prevents the two men, the two minds from ever coming to a consensus. Frost shows this lack of consensus between the two men through the use of ambiguity and inconclusiveness throughout the entire poem.
Lines 16-22
– This idea of parallelism and the idea that two individuals will never come to a shared conclusion is reiterated here of anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrasing): “To each the boulders… to each” (ll. 16) / “And some are loaves and some are so nearly balls” (ll. 17). This is interestingly repeated throughout the poem: “Walling in or Walling out” (ll. 32) / “Good fences make good neighbours” (ll. 27, 43), indicating the centricity of this idea to the poem
– The rigidity and uniformity of the previous 4 lines is abolished and the speaker returns to his usual light-hearted, casual self. In line with is vivid imagination, the speaker mentions: “We have to use a spell to make them balance: ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'” Despite the fanciful imagery employed here, the speaker hints at the futility of mending the wall. The work is so laborious and tedious, yet the wall is so fragile that “magic” is needed to retain its form–an impossibility!
– The absurdity of mending the wall is shown through the speaker’s likening the activity to “just another kind of outdoor game,” revealing the speaker’s lack of seriousness when building the wall. It also contrasts with the tone of the previous line, line 20: “We wear our fingers rough with handling them”, causing the reader to question the purpose of all that unnecessary labour in rebuilding the wall, even if it is “just another… game”.
– The speaker no longer considers his neighbour’s point-of-view at this point, and seeks to further his own argument in opposition to the wall. Here, the speaker becomes slightly mocking and deprecating of his neighbour as he compares his neighbour’s traditions of wall-building with the frivolity of a game. The speaker no longer comes across as objective and fair as he did in the beginning of the poem.
Lines 23-27
– The speaker starts to escalate his criticism of the wall and by extension his neighbour’s persistence in maintaining it:
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.
Through the use of personification, the speaker showcases the vast differences between him and his neighbour. This analogy is apt because the acidity of pine duff would prevent apple seeds from taking root, implying that divergence between the two men exist even at a fundamental level.
– The speaker has certainly become more antagonistic (1) towards his neighbour as his seemingly facetious (fa-see-shus) imagery is highly derogatory towards his neighbour as it insinuates that his neighbour is too stupid to realise that the speaker represents no threat to him whatsoever. There is also an incongruity in the comparison between apples, which are edible, and pines, which are not, creating a tension that continues to the end of the poem.
– Ironically, by attacking his neighbour’s lack of open-mindedness and social interaction, the speaker shows himself to be anti-social, pessimistic and morally-presumptuous. (2)Assuming the worse of his neighbour despite the latter’s express desire in being “good neighbours”. The initial irony in the speaker’s initiation of the spring mending-time, that showed him to be truly progressive and open-minded, unrestricted by his personal convictions, is negated and replaced with a different irony: by criticising his neighbour for taking part in an activity which he initiated, the speaker shows himself to be unfair and even hypocritical. (1)
– The irony also serves to heighten the undefined tension that exists between the speaker and his neighbour, reaching its climax when the neighbour utters, “Good fences make good neighbours”, a forceful line to which the speaker has no rebuttal. Frost presents the differences that exists between the two men even through the way they speak. The speaker, is wont to speak in an indulgently convoluted manner, fraught with syntax inversions, digressions and changes in rhythm while his neighbour is seen to be direct, simple and consistent in his speech (1), standing in salient opposition to the speaker’s rambling argument.
– Moreover, it is interesting to analyse how the respective aphorisms of the speaker and his neighbour differ. The speaker’s adage: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” sharply contrasts with the neighbour’s: “Good fences make good neighbours”. The speaker’s use of the word “wall” evokes a sense of fortification and fear while the neighbour’s use of the word “fence” connotes a less threatening image of the division that lies between the two men. The diction employed by the neighbour shows that he sees no sinister implications in the construction of the wall, and therefore does not question its necessity or desirability. The speaker on the other hand, through his criticisms of the wall and his neighbour, exposes his misjudgment as he reads too deeply into the implications of the wall, and only in his imagination does it start to take offense.
In this first section of the poem, Frost presents to the reader the quizzical nature of the wall: Is it necessary/unnecessary? Is it desirable/undesirable? Is it threatening/non-descript? However, he does answer any of these questions, nor does he moralise the wall or the characters. He simply demonstrates a case in point, when a person reads too deeply into something, he ends up creating divisions between himself and others, possibly the reason for Frost depicting the speaker as the initiator of the wall, just as he is the initiator of the tension and division between the two men.
Lines 28-35
– The poem comes full circle when the speaker mentions, “Spring is the mischief in me”, referencing that mischevious force in the first line “that doesn’t love a wall.”
– Again, he preoccupies himself with a thought that is to consume him. This time, he ponders over how he can challenge his neighbour’s point that “Good fences make good neighbours”. His need to attack his neighbour’s beliefs creates a barrier between the two, preventing either of them from understanding each other, giving new meaning to the idea of a wall (3).
– The speaker wonders, “If I could put a notion in his head”, and attempts to use reason to get his neighbour to question his own beliefs–“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it where there are cows? But there are no cows”–but is ultimately incapable of challenging his neighbour’s adage.
– The theme of parallelism is shown here again, “What I was walling in or walling out”, indicating again that the speaker and his neighbour are on parallel paths, never to meet each other in consensus. This brings to mind the speaker’s earlier words, “We keep the wall between us as we go” (ll. 15)
– The wall continues to take on its metaphorical meaning of a barrier between two individuals as tension builds up between the two characters in the poem.
– The speaker becomes more contentious towards his neighbour saying, “I could say ‘Elves’ to him, but it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather he said it for himself.” The speaker implies that his neighbour is stupid, thinking that he would be foolish enough to think that “Elves” were responsible for the wall’s destruction. While some readings interpret this as an example of the neighbour’s backwardness and “old-stone savage” as he is unable to appreciate the whimsy and light-heartedness of the notion, but it could simply be that the neighbour isn’t curious about the reason behind the wall’s disrepair, and the speaker is simply addressing an uninterested audience. (check validity)
Lines 37-43
– In the concluding lines of the poem, the speaker finally decides to drop the issue about “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, and focuses instead on his neighbour, presenting a vivid and imaginative caricature of him as a “old-stone savage” that “moves in darkness”. In doing so, the speaker frees himself from being confined to his pessimistic criticism and returns to his original role as a mere observer, leaving the poem inconclusive and the questions raised in the poem unanswered.
– The repetition of “Good fences made good neighbours” shows the perpetuity of the differences between the speaker and his neighbour, who, at this point, have become allegorical representations of diametrically opposed views and ideas, destined to be parallel with each other, never to coincide.

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