Walking the line with Robert Frost in the annual spring task — "Mending Wall"

SOMETHING there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Robert Frost opens one of his most famous poems, “Mending Wall,” by remarking on gaps in a traditional New England stone wall used to separate the property of two neighbors. He surmises this wall has been compromised by “SOMETHING” — a supernatural force (perhaps “elves” as he suggests later in the poem). Whatever force is responsible, it clearly doesn’t appreciate the fact that this wall exists. The actual cause for this breach in the wall is not “hunters” but a natural phenomenon. The ground underneath the wall has expanded due to winter cold causing its stones to lift and become dislodged. Frost observes the resulting gaps caused by this expansion are so wide that two people can move through them side by side. Frost goes on to clarify his meaning.

The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
 
Thus, Frost enlists his neighbor (and the readers) in the annual spring task to “walk the line” and re-set this wall. Good neighbor that he is, Frost is careful to keep the boundary between them as they do.
 
The Common Core State Standards suggests using “Mending Wall” as an exemplar to teach poetry in Grades 11–College and Career Readiness [p.161 in Appendix B: Frost, Robert. “Mending Wall.” The Complete Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949. (1914)].

EDSITEment’s lesson, Robert Frost's "Mending Wall": A Marriage of Poetic Form and Content, guides students through a close reading, line-by-line analysis of the poem to arrive at an understandingof why Frost chooses and places certain words within the poem to shape its meaning.
 

Close Reading of the Poem

By performing a close reading, students can begin to comprehend Frost’s masterful integration of form and content. Moreover, a close analysis into how Frost structures “Mending Wall” also speaks directly to the following Common Core Anchor Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
 

Activity 1 of this lesson directly addresses form by having students carefully examine the rhythm and meter of the first four lines (see the poem’s opening lines, above) and note the rhythmic changes in line four. From a content perspective, students will observe how this same line introduces “the gaps” in the wall. The form of the line, which projects a rhythmically, more unruly line that those preceding it, itself has breaks (gaps) in rhythm. Here is the first glimpse of Frost's marriage of form and content in this poem.

The rest of the lesson is based on this fundamental technique of observation, which gives students the tools to discern how formal change, repetition, and word relationships affect the meaning and significance of content. With the help of the worksheet, "Frost's Form and Content" in Activity 2, students can move onto an analysis of Frost’sfigurative language, word relationships, and word meaning, which encourages discussion of the broader themes through group work. The following questions help unpack these themes:

  • How do we describe the speaker and his tone? How do we describe the neighbor? How do they compare?
  • Whatis the meaning and significance of the word "mending" in both the poem's title and in the action carried throughout the poem? (Notice how the word can be used as both an adjective and an action.)
  • In what way(s) does Frost directly and indirectly use this word? Does anything else in the poem need mending?
  • In what ways do "walls" become metaphorical and/or symbolic in the poem?
  • Why does the neighbor think that "good fences make good neighbors"? Why does Frost choose to close the poem on this note?

Deeper Analysis of the Craft and Structure

Once the first level of understanding has been demonstrated, students are ready to make the descent into the subterranean meanings within the poem. This level of reading addresses the more subtle figurative and metaphorical levels of language noted in the following Common Core Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)

Activity 3 encourages students to focus on the poem's form in relation to themes they have identified and discussed. A teacher version of the worksheet contains a helpful analysis of selected lines. Frost employs the word “gaps” and the word “walls” by playing with form to convey the multiple meanings of these antonyms and to get their figurative and connotative meanings across. The following questions (with suggested responses in brackets) are designed to encourage students’ understanding.

  • What “gaps” are coming up in this poem?

[The breach in the physical space between the neighbors on either side of the wall; the emotional emptiness within their neighborly relationship.]

  • Can such emotional gaps be deeper even than the one under repair? How does Frost make these all too human gaps evident?

[The superficial conversation exchanged by the neighbors in the poem. The neighbor doesn't understand the nuances of the speaker's comments and the speaker doesn't understand his neighbor's attachment to provincial clichés.]

  • What “walls” are being built in this poem?

[The repetition of the word “walls” literally creates them within the poem and underline the physical walls that exist between neighbors; the “father’s saying” becomes a figurative wall — the neighbor’s belief in it without questioning perpetuates it.]

  • What is being “walled in” and “walled out” here? Does Frost think human beings should love “walls” and try to keep them up or like nature is it better to have walls come down?

[As Frost tells us there are “no cows” to keep contained, each neighbor’s property—one containing pine trees and one containing apple trees—are being walled in; two different personalities are being walled out.]

  • Ask students to frame ultimate questions around the gaps and walls that surface in this poem?

[Why can’t the gaps that divide human personalities be fixed as easily as natural (or supernatural) forces break down a wall?

How can a broken wall between two properties be built up with effort, but an authentic relationship between two neighbors cannot be willed?]

For a culminating activity, have students to explain how Frost shoots the old cliché in the foot to arrive at a fresh understanding of this truth: Good fences do not (necessarily) good neighbors make!

Additional EDSITEment resources for teaching “Mending Wall”

EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation cites “Mending Wall” as the leading poem responsible for establishing Frost as “a major force in modern poetry.” Read more about the context of this poem and about Robert Frost’s life.


Shelley

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