In his poem ‘Mending Wall’, Robert Frost presents to us the thoughts of barriers linking people, communication, friendship and the sense of security people gain from barriers. His messages are conveyed using poetic techniques such as imagery, structure and humour, revealing a complex side of the poem as well as achieving an overall light-hearted effect. Robert Frost has cleverly intertwined both a literal and metaphoric meaning into the poem, using the mending of a tangible wall as a symbolic representation of the barriers that separate the neighbours in their friendship.
The theme of the poem is about two neighbours who disagree over the need of a wall to separate their properties. Not only does the wall act as a divider in separating estates, but it also acts as a barrier in the neighbours’ friendship, separating them. For the neighbour with the pine trees, the wall is of great significance, as it provides a sense of security and privacy. He believes that although two people can still be friendly neighbours, some form of barrier is needed to separate them and ‘wall in’ the personal space and privacy of the individual.
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This is shown through his repeated saying, ‘good fences make good neighbours’ (line 27). The neighbour’s property is a representation of his privacy and the wall acts as a barrier against intrusion.
The poem itself is a technique Robert Frost uses to convey his ideas. Behind the literal representation of building walls, there is a deeper metaphoric meaning, which reflects people’s attitudes towards others. It reflects the social barriers people build, to provide a sense of personal security and comfort, in the belief that barriers are a source of protection, which will make people less vulnerable to their fears. Robert Frost’s ideas are communicated strongly through the perspective of the narrator in the poem, the ‘I’ voice, who questions the need for barriers.
The use of conversation and the thoughts of the narrator reflect the poet’s own thoughts. Inline thirty to line thirty-five, the narrator questions the purpose of a wall. He has an open disposition and does not understand the need to ‘wall in’ or ‘wall out’ anything or anyone.
One of the poetic techniques that Robert Frost uses in ‘Mending Wall’ to convey his ideas, is imagery. In the first eleven lines of the poem, it is used to describe the degradation of the wall, creating a visual image for the reader. The sentence structure of the first line of the poem places emphasis on ‘something’. This, a compound with the use of personification, makes ‘something’ appear alive and even human-like. Animate qualities have been given to ‘something’ through the use of the words ‘love’, ‘sends’, ‘spills’ and ‘makes gaps’ (lines 1-4), illustrating a vivid impression of the degradation of the wall. Nature, in the form of cold weather, frost and the activities of small creatures, gradually destroys the wall.
The narrator seems to believe that walls are unnatural and suggests that nature dislikes walls. This is portrayed through the phrase ‘sends the frozen ground swell under it’ (line 2). The poem describes nature-making holes in the wall large enough that ‘even two can pass abreast’. Literally, this refers to the size of the holes. However, it can also be interpreted that nature wishes the men to ‘walk together’, side by side, living in harmony where there is no barrier in their friendship that separates them.
Figurative expressions are used in ‘Mending Wall’ to describe the relationship between the neighbours. Many phrases contain both a literal and metaphoric meaning. For example, the phrases ‘to walk the line’ and ‘set the wall between us’ (lines 13,14) refers to the building of a tangible wall that marks the boundary of the neighbours’ properties.
These phrases are also figurative and represent the setting of a barrier in the neighbours’ friendship. When they meet to repair the wall, it could be metaphorically interpreted as repairing their friendship and resolving disputes. ‘To each, the boulders have fallen to each’ (line 16) shows that faults lie on the behalf of both neighbours. The metaphor in line seventeen compares their disputes to loaves and balls – some are small and some are large. Figurative language has been used to convey the meaning and significance of building the wall.
An overall light-hearted tone has been achieved throughout the poem. One of the main techniques used to achieve this is the inclusion of conversation. ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’ (line 19) and the metaphor ‘spring is the mischief in me’ (line 28) for example, shows the neighbours having fun in mending the wall together, creating a cheerful, light-hearted atmosphere. The comparison of the repairing of the fence to an outdoor game also contributes to this light-heartedness. Although the narrator does not want the wall, ironically, the mending of the wall brings the neighbours together and literally builds their friendship. In repairing the fence, the neighbours are spending time together, building their friendship and improving the communication between them.
Humour has also been used as a technique to achieve a light-hearted atmosphere. Because the fence is important to the neighbour, he treats the matter of repairing it seriously. Imagery is used to describe the neighbour’s attitude, illustrating a rather grim, yet comical representation of him shifting the stones and repairing the fence. The narrator sees the stubbornness in his neighbour and uses the simile ‘like an old-stone savage’ to compare him to a stone-age man who ‘moves in darkness’ (lines 40, 41), that is, set in his ways, and who is unlikely to change his views.
The structure of the ‘Mending Wall’ is a long one-stanza poem. It is written in blank verse and contains a narrative-like style. Repetition is used as a technique to emphasize the main ideas. The line ‘something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ has been repeated in line thirty-five with a new meaning. It refers to the attitudes of the narrator towards the wall – the narrator does not ‘love the wall’ and wants it down – whereas the ‘something’ mentioned in the first line of the poem refers to nature.
Another example of repetition is the statement ‘good fences make good neighbours’. This reflects back to and emphasizes the idea and opinion society adopts: Although people can be good friends, there will always be a barrier standing between them, acting as a boundary that separates their social relations from their personal privacy, ‘walling in’ what they do not wish to share with others.
In ‘Mending Wall’, Robert Frost communicates his opinion regarding the ideas of barriers between people, communication, friendship and the sense of security people gain from barriers, through the perspective of the narrator of the poem. Poetic techniques such as imagery, figurative language, irony, and the use of the building of a wall as a symbolic representation of barriers have been utilized to convey these messages through a light-hearted tone, and simultaneously to portray a serious side of the poem.
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