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Mending Wall
By Robert Frost (1874-1963)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Verse Format
Theme
Text of the Poem
Style
Literary Devices
Questions, Writing Topics
Author Information
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings.. 2008
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Type of Work and Years of Publication

......."Mending Wall" is a lyric poem of forty-five lines centering on whether it is wise to erect walls or other barriers. It first appeared in North of Boston, a collection of Frost's poems published in London in May 1914 by David Nutt. The Henry Holt company published North of Boston in New York in 1915. 

Verse Format

.......Robert Frost wrote "Mending Wall" in blank verse, a form of poetry with unrhymed lines in iambic pentamenter, a metric scheme with five pairs of syllables per line, each pair containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The first four lines of the poem demonstrate the pattern. 

........1...................2..................3.................4................5
Some THING..|..there IS,..|..that DOES..|..n't LOVE..|..a WALL 
.......1..................2.....................3....................4..............5
That SENDS..|..the FRO..|..zen-GROUND-..|..swell UN..|..der IT 
.........1................2.................3................4.............5
And SPILLS..|..the UP..|..per BOULD..|..ers IN..|..the SUN
.........1................2...............3.................4..................5
And MAKES..|..gaps E .|..ven TWO..|..can PASS..|..a BREAST

Theme

.......The central theme of "Mending Wall" is whether it is wise to erect walls and other types of barriers. 
.......At first glance, the poem seems to suggest that walls stand as obstacles to progress and social concord. Tear them down, as does the mysterious “something” of lines 1 and 36, and you open the way for communication, friendship, and unity. The destruction of the infamous Berlin Wall demonstrates the wisdom of this viewpoint. Yet the neighbor with pine trees insists that walls “make good neighbors.” He resembles an obstructionist, a Luddite, who can only recite his father's bromide (lines 43-45) to justify his yearly task of rebuilding the wall. The poem’s speaker describes him as a creature of primitive darkness:

..............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. (lines 38-42)
.......At second glance, the poem seems to indicate that walls may be necessary after all—at least in some cases—as lines 33-35 suggest:
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.
This sentence indicates that the speaker would approve of a wall with an obvious purpose. Prisons, bank vaults, zoos, museums, and nuclear power plants, for example, all require walls. And if you live near a prison or a nuclear plant, you would probably agree that good walls indeed make good neighbors. 
.......Ironically, in the interest of comity, the speaker of the poem each spring helps to reconstruct a wall he believes is unnecessary. He doesn’t want a wall of disagreement to stand between him and his neighbor. In other words, he sees the unnecessary wall as necessary.



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Mending Wall

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:.....................................................5
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,:...............................10
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.:...............................................15
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.:......................................20
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:.....................................................25
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:..........................................30
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,:...........................................35
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. :......................................40
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.":..............................45 .



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Style

.......Frost wrote poetry in the simple language of everyday conversation. Even a child could define most, if not all, of the words in "Mending Wall." However, when the reader peeks beneath the words, phrases, and sentences, he finds ambiguity and unanswered questions. Why, for example, does the speaker continue to help his neighbor rebuild the wall if he believes that it serves no purpose? As the speaker points out, "My apples trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines . . . " (lines 25-26). And whom do the hunters represent? Are they symbols of pillaging marauders, perhaps, or empire-building armies that cross borders to kill their quarry? (The year that Frost wrote the poem, 1914, may be significant in this regard, for it was in August of that year that the First World War began.) Thus, Frost is simple and complex, obvious and obscure. Of course, life is that way. A person smiles at us, and we wonder whether he is frowning inside. A neighbor builds a fence, and we wonder whether he wants to keep his children in or our children out. 

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Literary Devices and Imagery

.......Frost is spare in his use of adornment and literary devices, making the poem sound like a conversation over a cup of coffee. However, the poem does contain many poetry conventions, including the metric pattern of Shakespeare—blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter)—used throughout the poem. It also contains another common Shakespearean device, inversion (or anastrophe), in what is perhaps the most memorable line in the poem: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." (Ordinarily, one would write or say, "There is something that doesn't love a wall.) In lines 17-19, Frost uses metaphor, personification, and hyperbole.

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!"
A metaphor compares the stone blocks to loaves and balls. A metaphor-hyperbole compares the method of placing the rocks to a spell. A personification (quoted sentence) treats the blocks as persons. 
.......In lines 32 and 33, Frost uses alliteration: Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out.

Author Information

.......Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in San Francisco, California, where he spent his childhood. In 1885, after his father died of tuberculosis, the Frosts moved to Massachusetts. There, Robert graduated from high school, sharing top honors with a student he would later marry, Elinor White. 
.......Frost attended Dartmouth and Harvard, married Miss White in 1895, worked farms, and taught school. In his spare time, he wrote poetry. Disappointed with the scant attention his poems received, he moved with his wife to Great Britain to present his work to readers there. Publishers liked his work and printed his first book of poems, A Boy’s Will, in 1913, and a second poetry collection, North of Boston, in 1914. The latter book was published in the United States in 1915. 
.......Having established his reputation, Frost returned to the United States in 1915 and bought a small farm in Franconia, N.H. To supplement his income from the farm and his poetry, he taught at universities. Between 1916 and 1923, he published two more books of poetry—the second one, New Hampshire, winning the 1923 Pulitzer Prize. He went on to win three more Pulitzer Prizes and was invited to recite his poem “The Gift Outright” at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. Frost died in Boston two years later. One may regard him as among the greatest poets of his generation. 

Study Questions and Writing Topics

1...Explain the purpose of the following famous walls or barriers: the Iron Curtain, the Bamboo Curtain, Hadrian's Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Maginot Line, and the 38th Parallel. 
2.  Some walls are abstractions impervious to cannon fire, bombs, and even nuclear weapons. One such wall was apartheid. What was apartheid? How and when was this wall breached?
3.  What is the caste system, a type of abstract wall that has existed for centuries in India?
4...In an essay, discuss the types of walls that exist between children and their parents. 
5...Write a poem about a barrier that separates one human being from another. 

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