Mending Wall

One of Robert Frost’s most famous poems is Mending Wall, a poem that some like to quote when castigating people for being intolerant. But there are two sides to the wall being mended and many ways of interpreting this poem, all of which ask us to reconsider how we view other people’s words and actions.

It is early spring and the narrator and his neighbor are repairing the stone wall that separates their properties. The neighbor, a Yankee farmer of few words, declares: “Good fences make good neighbors.” In this reading of Mending Wall, the narrator questions the value of “good fences”:

 

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 narrator seems to be the enlightened one as he opines: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out?” It seems the narrator wants to attribute selfish motives to the neighbor but that may be reading too much into the simple business of rebuilding the wall, a common practice in New England, even though, as the narrator points out: “But here there are no cows.”

Frost himself resisted too facile interpretations of his poems, including Mending Wall. Reviewer Lawrence Raab may better understand what Frost intended:

Mending Wall is a poem that lures the unwary reader into believing that thinking is merely voting, choosing sides, taking out of the poem what most fits our own preconceived ideas… Mending Wall is less a poem about what to think, than it is a poem about what thinking is, and where it might lead.

Thinking is hard but judging is easy. It’s not that judging is bad; it’s a necessary part of life. But we can be too hasty in forming an opinion before we know the facts or have considered that others may experience an event in a different way than we do.

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