Walking the line in spring with Robert Frost: “Mending Wall”

Photograph of a low stone wall on farmland in Derry, N.H
Photograph of a low stone wall on farmland in Derry, N.H., once owned by poet Robert Frost. Some believe this area inspired Frost to write his poem “Mending Wall.” Source: AP, May 29, 2011. Courtesy NBC Learn K-12.

“My poems—I should suppose everybody's poems—are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark. I may leave my toys in the wrong place and so in vain. It is my intention we are speaking of—my innate mischievousness.” —Robert Frost

Robert Frost, the quintessential New England farmer–poet, opens his poem "Mending Wall' by remarking on the cause of the gaps that have surfaced in a traditional stone wall used to separate the property of two neighboring farms. He surmises this wall has been compromised by “something,”—not quite sure what is the cause, but rejects the possibility of a human agent (not “hunters”), and wonders if it could be a supernatural force (Perhaps “elves” as he whimsically suggests later in the poem?). As he speculates on whatever is responsible for this breach, Frost thinks that the “something” clearly doesn’t appreciate the fact that this wall exists.

Of course, the actual cause of these gaps is a natural phenomenon that occurs during New England’s harsh winters, becoming evident as spring arrives: The ground underneath the wall expands due to freeze-thaw fluctuations between colder/warmer temperatures, thus causing its stones to lift and become dislodged. These stones, which are extremely heavy, have to be reset by hand after the snows melt to maintain the boundaries between farms.

The resulting gaps in this wall have opened so wide that two people can move through them side by side. Thus, Frost enlists his neighbor (and the readers) in the annual springtime chore to “walk the line” and reset this wall that divides their properties. “Good neighbor” that he is, Frost is careful to keep the boundary between them as they do. Generally, this repair is done to ensure livestock will be contained, but as Frost observes, here there are “no cows.” The poem reflects upon and lets the reader come to his/her own conclusion about the need of such walls between neighbors.  

The Common Core State Standards suggests using “Mending Wall” as an exemplar to teach poetry in Grades 11–College and Career Readiness. The full text can be accessed online from the Academy of American Poets.

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

Close reading

By performing a close reading, students can begin to comprehend Frost’s masterful integration of form and content in this finely layered poetic masterpiece. Aligns with 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 has students carefully examine the rhythm and meter of the first four lines and note the rhythmic changes in line four. From a content perspective, students observe how this same line introduces “the gaps” in the wall. The form of the line, which projects a rhythmically, more unruly line than 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 activities are based on this fundamental technique of observation and offer the tools to discern how formal change, repetition, and word relationships affect the meaning and significance of content.

The "Frost's Form and Content" worksheet in Activity 2, moves students onto an analysis of the poet’s figurative 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?
  • What is 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 craft and structure

Once the first level of understanding has been demonstrated, we 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.

Aligns with 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.

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. Activity 3 focuses on the form in relation to themes that have been identified and discussed. A teacher version of the worksheet contains a helpful analysis of selected lines. 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 divide between the neighbors on either side of the wall; the emotional emptiness within their neighborly relationship.]

  • Can such emotional gaps be even deeper 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 underlines 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, as in 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 the natural forces that break down a wall?

How is it that, with effort, a broken wall between two properties can be rebuilt, but an authentic relationship between two neighbors cannot be willed?]

For a culminating activity, have students 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! 

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