Tuesday, February 10, 2009


This essay was first posted in my other blog last year and I am reposting it here because this blog has a different set of readers. I hope you enjoy Frost as much as I do :-). Have a nice day!


Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
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 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 outdoor 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.”

by Robert Frost

I love Frost because of the air of mystery and melancholy surrounding his poems. A few scholars regard Frost as a nature poet who writes in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Wordsworth or even an Imagist in the school of Ezra Pound; however, Frost did not classify himself that way. A look at his poems (you can find the many of his collection here) reveal how his poems deal with the theme of nature in a colloquial tone. Frost’s poems must also be studied in the context of the American dream.

His poetry speaks to the ordinary person with simple yet evocative images. I like him cos Frost is easy to approach, not esoteric or verbose and uses words that allow the reader to connect with tangible objects and authentic emotion. He uses no pretense, as shown by this straightforward line from “Mending Wall“:

“We keep the wall between us as we go.”

Due to his immense popularity and resonance with common Americans , he has been nicknamed America’s Poet. He writes of home, of yelping dogs, apple trees, and rough fingers. His poems recall a simpler, idealized time of prosperity and fertility.

Frost received such a wide range of awards and distinctions, including four Pulitzer Prizes!! Despite his popularity, Frost did not participate in the modernistic, free-verse experiments of his fellow poets. He preferred to convey his thematic messages through meter, rhyme, and form. The U.S. Senate passed a resolution dedicated to Frost on his seventy-fifth birthday, declaring that “His poems have helped to guide American thought and humor and wisdom, setting forth to our minds a reliable representation of ourselves and of all men.”

Ok. Enough background information and now it is time to look at the poem.
Mending Wall”, which was written in 1915, is Robert Frost’s tribute to one man’s notion of being a good neighbor even as that concept is the opposite of his own. It is the opening poem in Robert Frost’s second collection of poetry, North of Boston (1915). He wrote it with homesick feelings as he was living in England with his wife and four children before WW1.

It is said that French-Canadian Napoleon Guay who had been Frost’s neighbor in New Hampshire a few years earlier inspired him to write this poem because he often repeated the phrase, “Good fences make good neighbors,” during the routine repairs on the wall between their farms.

“Good fences” symbolically refer to personal boundaries that remind us of the American pioneer mentality of staking a claim and taking ownership. Personally, I believe that Frost does not subscribe to this dream and in fact, hints at another version.

To me, “Mending Wall” illustrates the idea of personal and natural freedom, as well as limitations, of a rural existence. The poem questions the necessity of a wall, like questioning the wisdom of perpetuating an old habit/tradition. Interestingly, Frost later became American “goodwill ambassador” first to South America and then to Soviet Union during President Kennedy’s administration. Obviously, Kennedy thought Frost should foster positive relations with other people and cultures internationally in the light of his interest in the dilemma of borders in “Mending Wall”.

I find this poem particularly meaningful as Frost shows us the complexities of humanity through the relationship between man and nature and even in communal and personal space. A deep thinker, Frost asks us to contemplate the meaning of “neighbor” and “boundary”.

Mending Wall” has two characters: its narrator and his neighbor who are owners of adjacent farms. They meet each Spring to repair the stone wall that separates their properties. Initially, the narrator seems be skeptical in his attitude toward property. but later Frost shows that it is in fact more complicated.The poem opens with his words “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”—a phrase he repeats later, making it a kind of slogan for the position on property he personifies.

The poem seems to imply that if a stone is missing form the fence, you can bet that the two men are out there putting it back together piece by piece. Now let’s think of this in the Malaysian context. Do we see people ready to mend fences or do they make walls higher or new barriers?

Frost’s description of every detail in this poem is quite interesting, very pleasant to read, and extremely imaginable. I feel I have the liberty to make my own conclusions from the reading and like in “The Road Not Taken”, these conclusions change (even as I am blogging this post!!)

On one hand, Frost makes literal implications about what the two men are doing. For instance, they are physically putting the stones back, one by one. Their dedication, commitment, and constant drive shines through when reading how persistence these men seem about keeping the wall intact.

Quite the contrary however, is the inferences that something even deeper is going on. There is a sharing experience taking place here. Indeed, by laboring so hard, each man is experiencing physical repercussions, but they are also using this time as a “meet and greet” period.

One can deduce from the beginning of the poem that the wall has many forces that keeps it in shambles. For instance, Frost writes:

“…that sends the frozen ground swell under it and spills the upper boulders in the sun…”,

and also:

“I have come after them(hunters) and made repair where they have left not one stone on a stone…”

The man and his neighbor don’t seem to have time for anything else, for it sounds as if they are constantly making repairs. Is there a reason for this? Doesn’t it sound familiar?

It is important to note that not only are these men completing a manly task, they are also “building” some type of relationship. If this were not an issue, the neighbor would not repeat;

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

As the man tells his story, it seems that while the two men may be conversing and interacting, there is some distance between them at all times. The man says:

“…on a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again.”

I believe Frost is telling us that while there is a need for friendship in each of us, it is equally as necessary for us to have our own space.

As the poem continues we see that what is taking place is almost like a game. In fact, he says;

“We keep the wall between us as we go”.

This is almost like there is this game of leapfrog taking place!

I find the following line most intriguing:

“He is all pine and I am apple orchard,”

That line reminds us that each of us are different in our personality or likes, dislikes, etc. One of the men grow “apples” while the other only has “pines”. Nonetheless, each are special and both of them contain separate, yet endearing qualities.

I spent some time thinking of Frost’s use of the “stone” itself. What could he have meant by this poem?

“Stay where you are until our backs are turned“.

He is speaking to the stones. It seems as though he is telling them that if they are going to fall, please wait until he is not looking. This seems to be quite strange as the man appears so bored at times that he would talk about or to anything.

Maybe the neighbor is not as much of a talker as one might have imagined. Maybe the man only has himself and these inanimate objects to converse with. After all, the only quote by the neighbor in this poem is:

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

In another light however, there is the idea of separation, or segregation. The two men are consistently kept apart by this wall. I think Frost contrasts his “wall” of separation with the idea of segregation in our world. We are left with the impression that if two people have differences, no matter the extent, they are not considered equals by society.

There is the recurring idea that the wall should not be there in the first place.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

In the final analysis, I think what Frost is trying to say in this poem is that walls don’t make good neighbors simply because walls are unnecessary. Some of you may disagree, but if the poem is read in-depth, it is obvious that Frost does not condone mending walls between people. The beginning of the poem makes the speaker seem like he’s alright with the wall.

I seriously believe that it is actually just because he’s following tradition and conforming without thinking individually. The speaker meets up with his neighbor to repair the wall and the neighbor says,

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

Then the speaker is able to start thinking about the actual purpose of the wall/fence which doesn’t really do anything except keep the neighbors apart or keep in livestock (which is not present). The speaker likens the neighbor to a savage, making him appear old-fashioned and traditional. The neighbor keeps true to the beliefs held by his father and repeats,

Good fences make good neighbors.”

The main theme of this poem is to stir us to question traditions. The fence (wall) divides the neighbors and alienates them from each other–not exactly a “good neighbor” in itself. From the way the speaker likens the neighbor to a savage, it is obvious that the speaker thinks the neighbor is in the wrong when he believes in mending walls.

The fence/wall represents old traditions, especially traditions that are actually bad for society. Frost is sending a message to the readers that we should do away with this “wall” and commit to new ideas which will benefit human relations. However, the pessimistic message he also sends us is contained in the last three lines.

The neighbor remains faithful to his father’s tradition and continues thinking well of fences. This represents the way members of a society are so susceptible to conformity to traditional views and thus are hard to change. Frost is negatively saying that most of the time, no matter how bad the tradition is, people still refuse to accept change. Does it not sound familiar again?

It seems that his neighbor can appear dangerous as well, and Frost ends with his neighbor’s statement, “Good fences make good neighbors”. In short, the fence is what physically keeps the two neighbors apart, but also brings them together each spring to mend it once again. May this happen in Malaysia. May the differences that keep us apart also draw us together as we yearn for progress in our country.

This sentence infers that the wall separating we as a people, needs to come down. It is virtually impossible for us to build lasting relationships while we are still possessed with hatred and discrimination.

Honestly, may the walls that separate us from one another in Malaysia come tumbling down!!!! The choice is ours - to build walls or to bring down the walls.

What is your opinion of this poem and your desire for our country? Please leave a comment, dear reader. Thanks!

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