On “Mending Wall”

George Montiero

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“Who are bad neighbors? ” asked H. D. Thoreau, for the sole purpose of answering his own question. “They who suffer their neighbors’ cattle to go at large because they don’t want their ill will,—are afraid to anger them. They are abettors of the ill-doers.” Thoreau could have as readily asked, “Who are good neighbors?” Whereupon, following his reasoning, one could answer, “Those who build and maintain walls which keep out their neighbors’ cattle.”

How, and indeed whether, the good will of one’s neighbor is fostered by boundaries, however, was a general question that would engage Thoreau’s latter-day disciple, Robert Frost. Were walls and fences instrumental in the retention and renewal of human relationships Is a question central to “Mending Wall.” The answers the poem presents us with are somewhat less than clear- cut. This is so, at least partly, because Frost has purposely and purposefully left out of his poem a piece of important information. One key to the poet’s omission lies in the final lines of the poem.

. . . I see him there ,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
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.”

In these lines the poet moves back through time, beyond his own earlier questioning of the possible reasons for continuing the annual repair of those now apparently useless boundaries, to an earlier, darker age. Indeed, his neighbor seems to be moving in a “darkness” that is, suggestively, “not of woods only and the shade of trees.” To the poet he is now “like an old-stone savage armed.” Even on New England farms in this century the ways of the savage continue, it would seem, no matter how transformed, no matter how radically.