Norman Holland: On "Mending Wall"

This is one of Frost's most often anthologized and analyzed poems, justifiably so. I sense from it deep and widely shared psychological issues like those of "Once by the Pacific," but first, I want to concentrate on reading toward a conscious theme.

Several phrases refer to the seasons, particularly in a repetitive, cyclic way: "spring mending-time," "frozen ground-swell," "once again," "spring is the mischief in me." One of the major themes I see, then, is the cycle of the seasons. Associated with it, critic George Monteiro points out, is an ancient ritual antedating the Romans, the Terminatia, an annual reaffirming of boundaries, surely not unknown to Robert Frost, student of the classics.

Another theme I would use to bring together a number of particular lines and images is parallelism or the lack of it. Sometimes this parallelism takes a physical form, associated with the wall, as we imagine the two men walking parallel paths: "We meet to walk the line." "We keep the wall between us as we go." "One on a side." It is a mental wall, though, as well as a physical one, and I read the gaps as making possible a meeting of minds and attitudes as well as of lands and bodies. Closing the gaps in the wall means closing off points where the two men might meet physically or mentally. As the poet says, "If I could put a notion in his head," but he can't. The two men, the two minds, will remain parallel, on opposite sides of a wall.

I find parallelism in the language as well as in the central image of the two men walking along a wall. I find it in phrasings like "To each the boulders that have fallen to each." "And some are loaves and some so nearly balls." "Walling in or walling out." I find it most centrally in "Good fences make good neighbors," whose neat parallelism contrasts in my mind with the redundancy, the tangled, circling syntax of "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

The parallelisms in phrasing lead me to think of speech and language themselves as themes. I find many phrases like, "'I tell him," "He only says," "I'd rather he said it," "his father's saying," "He says again." The neighbor speaks "his father's saying" twice. The poet also speaks twice, and both their repetitions represent a hardening of position, a re-building of the wall. Speech can seem almost ominous, when I hear about those yelping dogs or when the poet spells out the magic he uses to balance rocks. Richard Poirier points out that the poem is not only about the making of fences but the making of speech between men and, even more tellingly, the way the making of fences leads to the making of speech--poetry, really, against "the claustrophobias of mechanical forms." "Walls have a power of confinement which creates a counter-movement of 'mischief.'" Richard Poirier points out a significant fact: the mischievous poet "who voices his opposition to wall-building is also the man who each year informs his taciturn neighbor that it is time to build them." "Voice and nature are thus potentially allied."

The cycles of nature and the seasons; parallelism; speech and poetry; the contrast between the physical and mental--I state such themes explicitly so that I can try to make each item of the poem relevant to every other through one or more of the themes. For example, what significance can I find in, "We wear our fingers rough with handling them"? The skin, it says, is another boundary being firmed up, and I can fit this line "under" the theme of walls and parallelism. Frost's psyche has nothing to do with this way of reading. Thematizing, as today's critical jargon has it, or simply "theming" is essential to my own sense of coherence in the poem and hence to my experience of it, although the themes themselves do not describe that experience, which remains finally emotional and private.

The last step in such a theming or cohering is to phrase one central theme or meaning for my four themes or subthemes. Then I can play the details of the poem against that central theme. What idea would unite seasons, parallelism, physical and mental, speech? I can borrow from Northrop Frye's reading of this poem and speak of the center of the poem as two human attitudes toward a wall, one wintry, one spring-like. Frank Lentricchia describes the two men in the poem this way: "One moves in a world of freedom because, aware of the resources of the mind, he nurtures the latent imaginative power within himself and makes it a factor in every-day living, while the other, unaware of the value of imagination, must live his unliberated life without it." I need not assume that Frost favors the walls-down, spring-like attitude over the walls-up, colder one, only that he is playing with the contrast between them. In fact Frost said, "Maybe I was both fellows in the poem." "I've got a man there; he's both of those people but he's man--both of them, he's a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries. That's man." Indeed that there are two such types and that one person can be both--those very facts make up one of the human walls that the poem, for me, is about.

Having arrived at some such centering theme, I can make parts of the poem relevant that otherwise would not make sense to me. "Some are loaves and some so nearly balls . . . " Why does Frost trouble to say that? I can read it as a dualism right inside the wall itself, a wan within a wall, a division within a division. (But is that enough? See the last pages of this book.) Why "elves"? I can fit them in as nature-spirits, as having to do with the "something" that takes the wall down--hence they fit under the theme of the seasons. Why cows? And what is the sense of Frost's saying his apple trees will never eat the cones under his neighbor's pines? I daresay I could rationalize these images (St. Armand, for example, notes that Frost knew pine cones could seed a nearby orchard). My task, however, is not to cohere the poem so much as to read the mind of Robert Frost.

[. . . ]

[T]he basic task of our first year of life is to establish a sense of self, whether that involves separating from a mother-and-child matrix or simply developing a sense of "I." As I read it, "Mending Wall" is about just this issue: setting up and breaking down boundaries, especially boundaries between people. Shall we have separate identities or shall we get rid of the boundaries between ourselves and the world outside? Frye and Lentricchia have stated the attitudes on either side of the wall in adult terms. In terms of child development, our first "wall"--our sense of a boundary between self and not-self--came about by means of the mouth. If so, I can imagine why Frost's poem about a wall has so many images of speaking and eating: "the yelping dogs," stones which are "loaves," the speaking of a spell, the neighbor's twice saying "his father's saying," phrases like "I tell him," "He only says," and so on.

I can also imagine why, although both Frost and his neighbor are grown men, the poet should offer his pixyish explanations through "elves." The poem itself offers something of a clue: "Spring is the mischief in me," and elves are tiny and child-like as well as imaginative and playful. Frost as a poet allies himself with that elfin playfulness but also with an impulse to lose the boundary between self and other and so return to earliest childhood, when one is an elf, living in a world where spells work.

In this way Frost projects onto nature his own playfulness: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, / That wants it down." The verb "love," by calling for an animate subject, makes the something that doesn't love more than some thing. Besides, the "frozen-ground-swell" is really frost, and that concealed pun again mixes up self and outer world as does "Spring is the mischief in me." The reference to cows, which I find somewhat puzzling, introduces other infantile themes, milk and motherhood most obviously, a note of femininity, but I also think of the cow as an eat-and-be-eaten animal. Hence I hear in Frost's "But here there are no cows" a denial of rivalry and eat-and-be-eaten anger--we don't need a wall.

It seems to me Frost is working with an infantile fantasy about breaking down the wall which marks self so as to return to a state of closeness to an Other. To lose the boundary between self and Other is to perceive one's own impulses as part of the outer world and to feel the actions of the outer world as one's own. Keats called this the essential ability for a poet: negative capability, being able to put one's own identity aside and imagine oneself into the things and persons of the world outside the self. Such a return to a child's at-oneness, however, is not without risk. One gives oneself over to "projection" and "introjection" which, Erikson remarks, "remain some of our deepest and most dangerous defense mechanisms." They may be good for poets, but they are dangerous for, say, politicians and generals or for a child frightened by the waves at the Cliff House beach. I am thinking of paranoid projections.

In the section of the poem where Frost entertains the possibility of just letting the wall fall down, I sense a faintly paranoid loss of boundary between himself and his neighbor: "I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head." "I'd rather / He said it for himself." There is a link, widely recognized in psychiatry, between a paranoid view of the world (It is all directed at me) and the projection of homosexual impulses (I don't love him--he loves me). In this context, the poem's fantasy of merger may not be directed at a woman ("no cows") but another man, and (in psychoanalytic terms) I can hear other levels of merger, in those hard boulders the two men carry: as weapons, as "balls," "handling them," and so on. In this vein, I am hearing wishes and fears about being close to another man, particularly a strong, primitive one, a "savage." I am hearing wishes about excrement, testicles, assault, or penetration of one man by another.

I hear, too, the primitive rage of the so-called "oral stage," in "the work of hunters," a rage that can carry over into all later hungers and desires.

they have left not one stone on a stone, But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, To please the yelping dogs.

Still more ominous is the picture of the neighbor holding a stone in each hand, "like an old-stone savage armed." The Palaeolithic reference images in yet another way regression to a violent, primitive state of mind.

Knowing something about the sources of this rage helps me make sense out of what seem to me the oddest lines of the poem:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

Using language to cope, Frost is telling the neighbor that he is being unrealistic. In a manifest way, Frost is simply being sarcastic: you only need a wall if you think immovable trees will cross over and eat inedible seeds. In the poem, however, as necessarily in Frost's and my minds, boundary and eating and identity and the ability to deal with reality all go together. A failure to keep one's boundaries marks the most severe mental disorders. It could indicate either a regression to the earliest stage of infancy or a failure to develop out of that oral stage. Thus, when the speaker imagines that wall down, he says, "He is all pine and I am apple orchard." If the wall comes down, individual identity will be destroyed. Unconscious anger is masked as gentle sarcasm, but the chaos comes through unchanged. I hear the neighbor (and the poem) saying, If there is no wall, craziness will break through.

That, it seems to me, is the core of fantasy that corresponds to the imagining and controlling of a sexual scene in "Once by the Pacific." When "something" takes the walls down between self and other, a chaotic, violent, irrational, primitive attack appears. As in the shorter poem, Frost uses language to imagine that aggression (the Stone Age image of the neighbor, for example). He then uses language to limit it: "He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'" "Put out the light."

At the conscious level (if we adopt Northrop Frye's centering theme) the poem plays off two human attitudes, one wintry, one spring-like. The warm spring-like (but dangerous) walls-down feeling corresponds to a poet's wish for a cozy but risky return to some original one-ness. The neighbor's wintry, New England standoffishness, his walls-up sense of privacy and separateness, corresponds to the cold, hard, more grownup reality of individuation. In a theme Richard Poirier develops, the walls-down feeling corresponds to the poet's wayward imaginings, the walls-up to the control of that imagination.

From The Brain of Robert Frost: A Cognitive Approach to Literature. Copyright © 1988 by Routledge.


Criticism Overview
Title Norman Holland: On "Mending Wall" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Norman Holland Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 17 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Brain of Robert Frost: A Cognitive Approach to Literature
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