Credit: Courtesy of American Memory Project at the Library of Congress.
One of America's most beloved and widely read poets, Robert Frost often is studied as a New England narrative poet. In other words, his poems feature a narrator who tells, or narrates, a story. Frost's "Mending Wall," for example, conveys the story of two neighbors who meet and converse over a traditional New England stone wall that needs springtime repair. As a narrative poet, Frost is considered accessible for students and poetry readers of all ages. A close analysis of Frost's poems, however, reveals that Frost indeed is a deceptively simple poet. While Frost's poems initially seem to be fairly straightforward, they really are quite complex in terms of their poetic form and, hence, meaning.
In this lesson, students will study both the content and the intriguing poetic form of Frost's famous poem "Mending Wall." Upon completing the suggested activities below, students will understand the intricate relationship between a poem's content and its form. This lesson will enable students to approach Frost's poetry in a new way and will provide them with analytical skills for reading poetry at large.
To enhance the poem visually, first show students pictures of the actual stone wall about which Frost writes in "Mending Wall." The pictures of Frost's farmhouse in Derry, NH, are available at the Frost Exhibit at the EDSITEment-reviewed Modern American Poetry website from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. If you haven't done so already, share with students some details of Robert Frost's life; the EDSITEment-reviewed websites the Academy of American Poets and Modern American Poetry both have excellent biographies of his life.
Perhaps the most important first step for students in closely analyzing a poem is to hear and/or read the poem aloud. Play for students the audio clip of Frost reading "Mending Wall," a link from Modern American Poetry. Then ask a student to re-read the following excerpt to the class (note: if possible, have students number the lines in order to more easily facilitate class discussion). Before this reading, ask students to pay attention to any difference in the poem's rhythm.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 1 That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, 2 And spills the upper boulders in the sun; 3 And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. 4
Ask students to describe the rhythm of the first three lines, reminding them that lines of poetry are often comprised of stressed and unstressed beats. For students new to rhythm and meter, have them visit this review of rhythm and meter in poetry, available at Emory University via the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets Ask the students to consider the following questions:
Despite the lack of rhyme, students should note the regularity of the iambic pentameter (blank verse) lines. If necessary to elaborate on iambic pentameter, ask for student volunteers to scan the lines on the computer or at the board. If students have difficulty remembering, remind them that iambic pentameter is comprised of five sections of two syllables each; the first is unstressed and the second is stressed.
The poem's rhythm changes in line four as this line falls out of the use of iambs. It's enough for students to notice that the monosyllabic words help to account for the change in rhythm; in other words, there is no need to scan this line formally. From a content perspective, this 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 our first glimpse of Frost's marriage of form and content. This activity is meant to prepare students for their own in-depth analysis.
After introducing students to this initial example of the intricate relationship between form and content, break students into five or six small groups to have students conduct in-depth analysis of the poem's form and content. Hand out the "Frost's Form and Content" student worksheet to each group. Ask each student group analyze the remainder of the poem in small groups and to complete the worksheet as a group, which should take about 20 minutes.
Regroup as a class and review the worksheet in order to answer the question, "How does Frost marry form and content?" Note that the teacher version of the worksheet includes analysis of selected lines. As the class progresses, introduce some of the following questions to encourage student discussion of the broader themes of the poem:
Next have students focus on the poem's form in relation to themes they have identified and discussed. Throughout the poem, Frost plays with form to convey underlying meaning. Ask students, for example, how the gaps serve as a metaphor throughout the poem (i.e., a metaphor of the "gap" between the neighbors and their relationship and even their conversation. Specifically, the neighbor doesn't understand the nuances of the speaker's comments throughout the poem, and the speaker doesn't understand his neighbor's attachment to what the speaker considers provincial clichés).
Continue analyzing the poem, turning to the next seven lines:
The work of hunters is another thing: 5 I have come after them and made repair 6 Where they have left not one stone on a stone, 7 But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, 8 To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean, 9 No one has seen them made or heard them made, 10 But at spring mending-time we find them there. 11
After re-reading these lines, ask students if they hear any changes in the poem's consistency. Students might note that the rhythm changes at "not one stone on a stone" and "The gaps I mean." Students might also point out how line 9 itself visually emphasizes the gaps with a sentence ending mid-line, creating a visual gap between "dogs" and "The".
Have students argue either in class or in writing the following questions:
Have students write a short argumentative essay on Frost's marriage of form and content in "Mending Wall." Students may use examples from the student worksheet.
Ask students to choose a single passage from another Frost poem (possibly "The Road Not Taken," if the extension is not used) and write a brief essay discussing the relationship of form and content from a single line or short group of lines.
If time allows, incorporate a discussion of Frost's famous poem "The Road Not Taken." To prepare for this extension, browse the critical commentaries about "The Road Not Taken," from Modern American Poetry. In class, students may listen to an audio clip of Frost reading "The Road Not Taken," available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets website. Ask students to explore the rhythm and meter of this poem, and then look for other formal elements, such as end-stops and enjambment, and their effect on the poem's interpretation.
1 class periods