‘Wall’ as Metaphor in Robert Frost’s Mending Wall
I suggest the wide appeal of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” (read the poem here) is, in the main, attributable to the different meanings carried by WALL as a metaphor. The Wall in the speaker’s story is a real physical wall, but I believe the theme of the poem is about WALL as a metaphor for something more abstract and ‘larger’ than a physical wall. To be more precise, WALL serves as a relatively concrete concept that encourages thinking about more abstract concepts readers might associate with a wall. As suggested by Lakoff and Johnson, “[t]he essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another”. (5) In “Mending Wall”, WALL as one kind of (concrete) thing invites readers to examine the way they view other kinds of things (more abstract concepts). In this essay, I will discuss three different ways in which WALL as a metaphor is significant, to show that different shades of metaphorical meaning make this apparently straight-forward poem rich with complexity.
First, WALL can be understood as a barrier to social interaction, connection, and friendship (the theme of barrier to social connection). The speaker and the neighbour get together each spring to mend the wall, at the instigation of the speaker. (12) Ironically, the speaker suggests that his only interaction with this particular neighbor occurs in the springtime when they are both engaged in mending their wall. The speaker does not love a wall, and would rather see the wall come down. (1, 35-36) He doesn’t see the need for the physical wall because there are no more cows in the fields, and his apples aren’t going to eat his neighbours’ pine cones. (25, 26) While this can be read as a reference to the physical wall in the story, WALL can also be understood metaphorically as a barrier to forging a closer relationship between the two neighbours. The speaker would like to have a closer connection with the neighbour, and he would like to put a notion in his neighbour’s head – to question the need for a wall between their lands. (29 – 31) But the neighbour seems content to have the wall between them as they go (15) and falls back on his father’s saying that ‘good fences make good neighbors’. (27, 45) The speaker acknowledges that mending the wall is like a game (21), and while it could be said that games bring people together, this one-to-a-side kind of competitive game does not satisfy the speaker’s quest for closer connection. “It comes to little more: There where it is we do not need the wall:” (22, 23) In this reading, WALL can be understood as reluctance to make friends with your neighbour.
Second, WALL can be understood as an entrenched belief in a tradition or a rule of society that inhibits a new approach to a situation (the theme of resistance to change). For the speaker, a time comes for questioning old habits and traditions. “Spring is the mischief in me,” (28) he says. There where it is they do not need a wall. (23) And with that, he has come to realize something important: that they could take the wall down, remove the barrier that separates them, or at the very least, neglect to mend it each year and let it fall apart. And while the speaker does not tell us why he does not love a wall, it does not require a great leap of the imagination to surmise that the speaker would prefer to walk the land openly, or to meet with his neighbour on different occasions. “Why do they make good neighbours,” he asks himself (30). The attitude of the speaker is contrasted with the attitude of the neighbour. Before he built a wall, the speaker would want to know what it would achieve, and who might take offence. (32 – 34) But the neighbour is “like an old-stone savage armed,” moving in darkness “not of woods only and the shade of trees.” (41, 42) All this suggests that here, WALL as a metaphor goes deeper than just suggesting a barrier preventing social interaction. There is something more at work here. The neighbour is portrayed as parroting his father’s saying, what he has been taught by his parents. (43) He is in love with the thought itself—that good fences make good neighbours—and continues to resort to the rule blindly (in darkness). (43 – 45) In this reading, WALL can be understood as resistance to fresh thinking, resistance to changing attitudes.
And third, WALL can also be understood as a barrier to enlightened behavior and expanded awareness of self as a member of a larger community (the theme of ‘love your neighbour’). This WALL is within the minds and hearts of people and groups with belief systems that view others as ‘us and them’. This attitude leads to intolerance and conflict. “We keep the wall between us as we go / to each the boulders that have fallen to each.” (15, 16) Here the speaker implies that people are reticent to share with others, and to allow access not only to their possessions but also to their ‘real’ self. The speaker does not love a wall (1, 35). It is open, I suggest, to understand WALL here as a metaphor not only for a physical and emotional barrier, but for a shield that prevents a deeper connection between people (‘neighbours’). Here the metaphor WALL understood as SHIELD works in tandem with the metaphor NEIGHBOUR understood as EVERYONE who is close enough to you who might be affected by something you do. This is why the speaker 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. (32 – 34)
In this third meaning for WALL as metaphor, the speaker expresses his disdain for his neighbour’s outlook. But I suggest the object of his disdain is those who cling unreasonably to old sayings, impractical traditions, and intolerant belief systems (NEIGHBOUR as metaphor for all of us). In other words, the main object of the speaker’s disdain is intolerance. This disdain is expressed in the following lines:
I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old–stone savage armed. (38 – 40)
The speaker sees his neighbour as an uncivilized savage, weapon in hand, ready to protect his property and his privacy with violence if threatened. And in the next two lines, the depth of this disdain reaches a crescendo:
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees. (41 – 42)
For the speaker, to cling so vehemently and unreasonably to what fathers teach and pass on from generation to generation without question (unlike the speaker’s attitude as expressed in line 30), is like living in darkness. This is not a darkness of woods only and the shade of trees, but a darkness of the soul. Here DARKNESS is another metaphor, in direct opposition to ENLIGHTENMENT. His neighbour’s mind is ossified:
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.” (43 – 45)
In this reading, WALL can be understood as a shield people use to protect their sense of self, a shield that prevents relating to others with consideration, love, and respect.
This richness of multiple meanings infuses the text with a complexity that is a hallmark of great works of art. Different readers will find different meanings in the poem. And some readers will see more than one way to understand WALL as metaphor. Also, the poem could be understood differently from time to time by the same reader. For these reasons, I suggest “Mending Wall” is rich with engaging complexity, and also one readers can return to several times over and discover a previously elusive nugget of truth. One such nugget relates to the central conflict in the speaker’s situation. What gives the poem an air of drama is the speaker’s acknowledgment that it would be futile to try to convince the neighbour that there is no need for a wall (both in the literal sense and the metaphorical). This conflict remains unresolved at the end of the speaker’s situation. But the poem itself serves as one possible means for the speaker to put the notion—his desire to have the physical wall (and all the other walls suggested by WALL as metaphor) come down—into his neighbour’s head. “I’d rather he said it for himself.” (37, 38) In a way, the poem is a metaphor for a message to his neighbour, and to all of us. As metaphor, it suggests rather than tells. It invites reflection without pointing a finger of blame or shame. And it allows the reader to feel he or she has figured out something profound, engaged as an active participant with the speaker.
Frost, Robert. “Mending Wall.” Elements of Literature. Eds. Robert Scholes, et
al. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2004. 548. Print.
Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1980. Print.