GUEST POST: Samuel Quinn considers Frost's "Mending Wall"
This week I’m featuring a guest essay by Samuel Quinn, who writes a poetry newsletter called The Pony Express. Quinn’s poems have a particularly jewel-like intensity; they remind me of extended haikus. He writes primarily about the natural world, and in this essay he analyzes a poem by one of the greatest of the last century’s nature poets, Robert Frost. I hope you enjoy it!
“And he likes having thought of it so well” —Frost, “Mending Wall”
Ironically enough, Robert Frost—known as the American Poet of New England rural life—wrote many of his most famous and well known poems in England. By age 38 he had failed to make a career in the United States, so he went overseas to see what he could accomplish. After all, England was home to a vibrant literary criticism scene and the home of famous pastoral poets like Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge. It was on this long journey that he once took a walk with a friend and noticed the short stone walls that divided and connected the English countryside.
When you actually read Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”, you would never realize that it was inspired by the English farmer: the theme transcends any particular place or time. A change possesses the unique power to cause perspective and within perspective exists the ability to be objective; in Frost’s case, his reflections in England helped him to escape some of the nostalgia surrounding his home both personally and as the site of his early career. In “Mending Wall” Frost examines his lifelong themes of man and nature, and he soberly offers both praise and critique on those themes. He crafts an old man and a young man and carefully places his personal reflections within their lips. He does so without a bias towards one side—he simply suggests that perhaps everyone is still learning and growing while also trying to protect a certain heritage unique to each individual. Traditions are truths in and of themselves, but they need people to exercise these traditions if they are to continue. To figure this out, we should go back to one of Frost’s first poems: “The Tuft of Flowers.”
Frost ends “The Tuft of Flowers” with these two lines:
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart, ‘Whether they work together or apart.’
This line seals man’s collaborative opposition to nature’s destructive forces found in most of Frost poems; man’s efforts to survive and thrive on earth constantly run up against nature’s attempts to disorder. Nina Baym1 finds these destructive tendencies in nature of critical importance in Frost’s poetic worldview: “For he does not find in nature a transcendental unity or assurance of rebirth, but rather the grim laws of change and decay.” The narrator in “Mending Wall” does not understand this, or that the wall is an ordered opposition against nature’s tendency towards disorder; instead, he thinks of the wall as a divider between the two families. Without really explaining or telling the reader, the narrator does come across as a progressive man. It is in his tone; he views his partner in wall-mending (the “old-stone savage”) as entrenched in his father’s ways, while he, the narrator, has broken away from those ways and can see the actual truth. With this perspective in mind, the poem becomes about the passing down of tradition through the generations of man.
While phrased like a statement, the first line of this poem leaves the reader wondering what the “something” is that does not love a wall, and Frost’s construction of the line belabors this point. His use of two verbs muddles the flow of the sentence through unnecessary repetition. Apparently, during the winter months, the ground contracts with enough force to dislodge boulders buried in the ground, essentially rejecting their presence. The thing that hates a wall then is the natural cycle of the weather. Frost depicts this contraction as an intentional action against the wall: something “sends” a “frozen-ground-swell.” To send something requires agency, and his choice to hyphenate the swell makes the entire phrase into a unit sent by a personified winter; instead of the frozen ground sending the swell, the entirety is sent by winter, the greater entity. Frost’s Naturalism continues to flow into the next line where the fallen boulders lie helpless in the sun; but the sun lacks any kind of identity and exists in spite of the broken walls. Under this impersonal sun, the boulders are torn asunder, and Frost emphasizes this force through saying the space between is two people wide. The wall, which symbolizes man’s attempt at creation, stands no chance against the slow inevitable progression of time, and so Nina Baym suggests, “In such a world, what possible meaningful action can man perform? In a word, he can resist.” This is what the narrator fails to grasp.
The narrator says of the gaps in the wall, “No one has seen them made or heard them made, / But at spring mending-time we find them there.” Without realizing his words, he wanders into the cyclical nature of the seasons, yet he lacks any understanding of the seasons. He uses the word “made,” but in Frost’s Naturalist vision, nature does not make the things around itself—rather, it unmakes them. Moreover, the act of mending the wall amounts to no more than a simple game full of spells and competition; his game is both man versus man and man versus the wall. Viewing things in this way is reminiscent of a child’s view of work, and it is significant that the narrator’s age is not given yet he seems younger than his “savage” neighbor. All of these remarks about the state of the wall, and their task—all these “why?” questions—convey a sense of innocence in the narrator, and it is in this innocence that his mischief arises. Frost’s vision for the task of mending the wall is far more serious, and David Sanders goes so far as to suggest2 that the wall stands “between us and the apocalypse.” The mending of the wall comes from a long tradition of collaboration between the neighbors. They collaborate against the disordering qualities of nature in order to preserve their place among nature; our narrator hasn’t realized that yet.
Does the narrator “come of age” or grow up in this poem? The short answer to this question is that he does not learn right away, but there should always be grace and patience extended during an education. As a young man, the narrator asks the right questions of the work around him. Curiosity bubbles out of him:
“If I could put a notion in his head: ‘Why do they make good neighbors?’ Isn’t it Where there are no 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.”
He simply wants to understand the reasons for the wall and its repairs, and he makes an astute observation that when one is building a wall, one ought to know why. Frost italicizes the word “why” to draw attention to it because the lines following it all call back to this why question. If the narrator does not understand the purpose of mending this wall, then he at least knows how a wall works.3 However, as a mentor, the old-stone savage fails to adequately teach the narrator why they are doing the task at hand. Every response to his fellow worker is a cold: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The repetition of this phrase begets the frustration in the narrator and causes him to view his counterpart as an entrenched and unthoughtful old man. In this capacity, the fact that the narrator fails to come of age is purely due to the failure of his neighbor to be a good neighbor. As the elder, he contains the answers to the narrator’s eager questions, but he fails to realize the opportunity to pass down knowledge and the traditions like his father did for him. So the narrator fails to “come of age,” but his youth will allow him the time to learn and grow as long as someone instructs him.
Reading “Mending Wall” as a coming-of-age poem gives it both the sense of tradition and the sense of progress that Frost desired from this poem. His poetic vision involved a strong sense of building on the ideas and practices of the past, but he also wanted his readers to understand their own responsibility to maintain and keep up those ideas. This is a call to those who understand how to resist the inevitable decay of nature to teach those younger than them how to join with the rest of mankind in their fight for survival. Despite the fact that the old-stone savage is not the narrator’s father, his position offers him the opportunity to perform fatherly responsibility, and in that direction lies the main thrust of this poem’s argument. It is to fathers, who must raise up their children in good habits and understanding. There is still time for both neighbors; they both still have life and strength in their bones and so can join together in their work. Perhaps the sons will one day think of their father’s sayings “so well.”
In “An Approach to Robert Frost’s Nature Poetry” from American Quarterly 17.4 (1965).
“Earth, Time, and England: New Light on Frost’s ‘Old-Stone Savage’ and ‘Mending Wall.’ ” The Robert Frost Review, 17 (2007).