Robert Frost’s Mending Wall: The Effect Of Boundaries In Relationships
Are walls meant to keep things in? Or out? Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” published in 1914 offers an insight into conflict caused by contrasting opinions on the concept of boundaries and the impact they have on relationships. The poem shows two opinions on this topic, the speaker believes they cause isolation whereas his neighbour believes they create unity. Through the use of tone, craftsmanship and historical context, Frost suggests that both the speaker and their neighbour could learn from each other’s viewpoint implying that boundaries do not always cause isolation or unity.
Frost’s poem has a clever use of tone which highlights the man versus man conflict that is depicted. By developing a stubborn and frustrative tone, Frost conveys the opinions of both the speaker and neighbour. The neighbour feels that walls unify people; it is that opinion that seems to frustrate the speaker. Frost writes: “…we do not need the wall” to indicate how the speaker feels, as if repairing the wall is unnecessary, showing that it will not cause harm to remove it by continuing to say “My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines…”. To add to the speaker’s frustration, the neighbours always stubbornly repeats his father’s saying, “Good fences make good neighbours.” The speaker sees this as the neighbour refusing to think for himself adding more conflict to the relationship the neighbour religiously believes the wall brings. By bringing this to the audience’s attention, Frost makes the audience consider their relationships and the troubles within them.
The craftsmanship of “Mending Wall” contributes to the audience’s understanding of the conflicted relationship between the speaker and his neighbour. Frost uses obvious irony to highlight this conflict with the wall, both bringing the speaker and neighbour together and separating them at the same time. This idea is further developed when the words “Good fences make good neighbours.” are put to contrast with “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”. This is paradoxical, as firstly the audience is finding out that barriers are good, but then finds out they are not. This juxtaposition helps the audience to understand the conflict of opinions faced in the poem. Frost also uses personification to emphasise the speaker’s thoughts. By personifying nature, specifically apple trees, the speaker tries to indicate harm will not be caused by removing divisions. The speaker views the neighbour as a caveman, stubborn and unable to think for himself, the audience sees this opinion indicated by the simile “like an old-stone savage armed”. The wall unites the speaker and his neighbour but separates them as well. As we hear the neighbour speak the saying twice ‘Good fences make good neighbours’. The audience is reminded to consider the walls in their own lives thinking about how people and their relationships with others are impacted.
In 1914, Frost wrote “Mending Wall”, when Frost wrote this poem World War One also broke out. Considering this, the audience sees that the poems historical context has a further effect on the meaning. When the poem is viewed as a war poem, the audience sees that the wall itself is a metaphor for the borders between countries, the speaker believes that borders that cause separation and therefore war too, and the neighbour believes that we cannot function without borders. This context adds immensely to the understanding the audience has of the conflict in the poem as it is essentially pro-war and anti-war worldviews colliding, which at the time would have been very relatable to the audience, in turn enhancing their understanding of the poem.
Through this poem, Frost effectively encourages readers to consider what walls or barriers might be having an impact on their relationships. This encourages the audience to question how good they are they good to have. War has always existed, and always will, the poem acts to express two common mindsets that come from it, isolation, and unity. Through his use of tone, craftsmanship and historical context, Frost can show that everyone should aim to learn from others and their views to maintain a successful relationship.
Written in 1914, Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” depicts the conflict caused when two opinions collide. Poetry critic Hamish McGuire argues that through the use of emotion, poetic devices and historical events, Frost shows us human limitations and their impact on society. Upon a closer look at the poem, Frost is trying to show us the negative effect of contrasting opinions.
To express both opinions on the topic, Frost writes, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / what I was walling in or walling out” to show the speakers point of view and “Good fences make good neighbours” to show the neighbours perspective. McGuire does correctly write that these lines build tension and conflict between the two characters, the development of this idea, however, is too focused on the explicit meaning and not the implicit intention. Rather than viewing the impact of actions as a restriction of freedom, as McGuire does, the audience’s attention should be directed towards the poem’s shining star, the wall. When Frost wrote: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / what I was walling in or walling out” he was not referring to the consequences of actions. Instead, Frost was talking about the consequences and conflict boundaries and borders bring to relationships.
In light of World War One, Frosts’ poem is not just talking about how war restricts freedom, but how war, to some, brings isolation, and to others, brings unity. In the line “He is all pine and I am apple orchard. McGuire is correct in showing that this refers to the differences between people, but when the speaker description of the neighbour as “an old-stone savage armed” is considered, the idea McGuire has of countries debating their involvement in the war is incorrect . Alternatively, it is seen that some countries think they are better than others, which results in conflict. Through the use of tone, craftsmanship and historical context, Frost is talking about more than human limitations as McGuire wrote.
- Frost, R. (1914). Mending Wall. David Nutt.
- McGuire, H. (2020). The Impact of a Wall.
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