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Robert Frost

Mending Wall

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1914

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A meditative lyric poem on the boundaries between people, “Mending Wall” was first published in 1914 in North of Boston, a collection of poetry by the American poet Robert Frost. “Mending Wall” is one of Frost’s most popular and anthologized works. It exemplifies the themes which came to define his poetry. Set in a rural American wood, its honest, colloquial tone belies a psychologically deep and ambiguous reality. The poem’s most quotable lines exhort two apparently contrasting worldviews: the isolationist “Good fences make good neighbors” versus the more inclusive “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.” Suggesting the inherently contradictory, or at least complicated, nature of man, the poet offered, "Maybe I was both fellows in the poem” (Burnshaw, Stanley. “Robert Frost’s Contrarieties.” The Academy of American Poets. October 9, 1990,). He later added, “I've got a man there; he's both [of those people but he's man--both of them, he's] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries. That's man” (Monteiro, George. “Frost’s Politics and the Cold War” in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost. Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 231-2).

Poet Biography

Born in 1874, Frost represents one of the most successful and lauded figures in American literature. Embodying both the folksy spirit of New England and a bleaker, more modernist perspective, Frost is a transitional figure between more traditional nineteenth century American poets and imagists like Ezra Pound. Frost received several major awards in his lifetime, including the title of poet laurate, the Congressional Gold Medal, and four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry.

Although he is most associated with rural New England, Frost was born in San Francisco, California. After the death of his father in 1884, the Frost family returned to Massachusetts, where Frost grew up and met his wife, Elinor Miriam White, whom he married in 1895.

Despite being considered a quintessentially American poet, Frost initially found little success in the States. Cobbling together a living teaching English as he completed coursework at Dartmouth and Harvard, Frost was rejected repeatedly by publishers in America. In 1912 he took his family to England, where he continued to write about New England, but found a much more favorable reception. Frost also became friends with other prominent poets of the time, including T. E. Hulme and Ezra Pound. In 1913 Frost published his first volume of poetry, A Boy’s Will, at age forty. A second volume appeared just a year later in 1914, North of Boston, in which “Mending Wall” appeared. A republishing of North of Boston in the US in 1915 soon cemented Frost’s fame stateside as well.

The Frost family moved back to America during World War I in 1915. Frost lived in the States for the rest of his life, publishing over two dozen books of poetry as well as various letters and plays. He was even invited to read at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. He died at the age of 86 in 1963.

Poem Text

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 neighbor 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 neighbors.’

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it

Where there are cows? But here 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 offense.

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 neighbors.’

Frost, Robert. “Mending Wall.” 1914. Poetry Foundation.


The poem opens with a riddle: “Something there is that does not love a wall” (Line 1). This something, which swells the frozen ground in winter, creates gaps in the wall large enough for two people to pass through (Line 2). Other human forces destroy the wall too, such as hunters, who disassemble it to kick up rabbits for their dogs (Lines 5-9). Whatever forces break down the wall, they are not perceived as they do it. The speaker and his neighbor only find the damage later, in the spring, when they unite to mend the boundary between their properties (Line 10-1). Together they walk the wall, both repairing it and keeping it between them as they go. The speaker imagines the activity as a sort of game, with silly spells to make the stones “Stay where [they] are until our backs are turned!” (Line 18-22).

The wall was built long ago and has no real function now. It is not as if, the speaker says, his apples will go eat the neighbor’s pinecones. When the speaker points this out, the neighbor simply responds “Good fences make good neighbors” (Line 27). Springtime makes the speaker mischievous; he wants to push his neighbor on this line of thinking. That sort of saying might make sense when there are livestock which could wander to and fro, but neither of the men own cows. Before building a wall, the speaker would prefer to know what he’s walling in and what he’s walling out. He considers telling his neighbor that it’s elves who take apart the wall, but finds that isn’t quite right either. Besides, he’d prefer the neighbor come to these conclusions himself (Lines 36-8).

The neighbor, lifting and replacing the stones, reminds the speaker of an “old-stone savage armed” (Line 40). To the speaker, his neighbor moves in literal (the shady woods) and metaphorical darkness (ignorance) (Lines 41-2). The neighbor obstinately refuses to “go behind” the meaning of his father’s saying, which he repeats again, ending the conversation (and the poem) with a sense of finality: “Good fences make good neighbors” (Line 45).