Mending Wall. North of Boston. 1914.

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 offence.
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.”

Spring Ritual

The reference here is to the Spring ritual of mending boundary walls.

In Roman religion, Terminus was the god who protected boundary markers; his name was the Latin word for such a marker. Sacrifices were performed to sanctify each boundary stone, and landowners celebrated a festival called the Terminalia in Terminus’ honor each year on February 23. – Wikepedia

Background

To the south of the Frost farm lived Napoleon Guay, his French-Canadian neighbor. The same neighbor also took great pride in making his own axe-helves, and he showed Frost that “the lines of a good helve/Were native to the grain before the knife Expressed them.”

When Frost wrote “Mending Wall,” he was reminiscing about the regular excursions he and his neighbor made to repair this wall. Guay insisted on the task as a matter of tradition. Frost’s wry tone in the poem hints that he considered it a needless task. Yet years later, while reading a collection of his poems, he said: “I wrote the poem thinking of the old wall that I hadn’t mended in several years and which must be in a terrible condition. I wrote that poem in England when I was very homesick for my old wall in New England.”

Inference

The first line is the hook, ‘Something there is…’ This something can be anything. The poet seeks the answer ‘who’ or ‘what’ wants the wall down. Neither reason (thieves) nor metaphysics (elves) can provide him that.

He wants the neighbor to question, think, reason, justify the ‘keeping’ of the wall.
He even tries humor:

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?

Frost is almost amused by the neighbor’s commitment to the ritual.

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 makes his view very directly, when he says,

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 offence.

But the neighbor refuses to go beyond an old adage. He stands steadfast with tradition. Frost uses ‘savage’ and ‘moves in darkness’ – clearly the wall here is the ignorance of his neighbor.

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,

And finally, he gives in, saying,

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

Of Walls

The recurring theme. Frost clearly detests – walls, boundaries, barriers, limitations. In this poem, he clearly hates the wall.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,

But then isn’t it because of the wall that he gets to interact with the neighbor?

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.

In The Cow in Apple Time, he puts his mockery for walls more lightly, a drunken cow who thinks ‘no more of wall-builders than fools’.

More…

When this poem was translated into Russian and printed in the newspapers for Frost’s official visit to the Soviet Union in 1962, many writers and intellectuals saw a negative reference to the Berlin Wall put up by East Germany in 1961. So the Soviet translators jump-started the poem with line two.
– Jeffrey Meters Kensington, Calif., April 22, 1995

Returning from a visit to Russia late in his life, Frost said, “The Russians reprinted ‘Mending Wall’ over there, and left that first line off.” He added wryly, “I don’t see how they got the poem started.” What the Russians needed, and so took, was the poem’s other detachable statement: “Good fences make good neighbors.” They applied what they wanted. “I could’ve done better for them, probably,” Frost said, “for the generality, by saying:

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

“Why didn’t I say that?” Frost asked rhetorically. “I didn’t mean that. I meant to leave that until later in the poem. I left it there.”
– Lawrence Raab

“Mending Wall” famously contains these two apparently conflicting statements. One begins the poem, the other ends it, and both are repeated twice. Which are we supposed to believe? What does Frost mean? “The secret of what it means I keep,” he said. Of course he was being cagey, but not without reason.

At a reading given at the Library of Congress in 1962 Frost told this anecdote: In England, two or three years ago, Graham Greene said to me, “The most difficult thing I find in recent literature is your having said that good fences make good neighbors.” And I said, “I wish you knew more about it, without my helping you.” We laughed, and I left it that way.

Why doesn’t Frost want to say what he meant? When asked, he’d reply, “What do you want me to do, say it again in different and less good words?” “You get more credit for thinking,”

From Touchstone: American Poets on a Favorite Poem. Ed. Robert Pack and Jay Parini. Hanover: University Press of New England., 1996. Copyright © 1996 by the President and Fellows of Middlebury College.

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