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Mending Wall - Frost

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”

As in most of his poetry, Frost takes an ordinary event, observes the details and then reflects on it with some mischievous pondering.  Rather than providing answers, Frost is content with raising various possibilities; some natural, some inexplicable.

Here two farmers meet annually to fix a dry stone wall fence separating their properties; yet Frost uses it to mischievously question our smug, complacent and cherished assumptions.

Walls, fences, borders and barriers are a necessary evil needed for demarcation, separation, privacy and defence. Bridges unite people; walls divide us. Both can be unnatural.  Walls can act as impediments and isolate us.  They can cause misunderstandings, break communication, exclude others and be divisive.  They can also protect us and delineate territory to avoid needless conflict. Some walls are psychological protections; against new ways of thinking.

CONSIDER the world's great walls:  

After 2000 years of heavy duty to keep out the Mongolians, The Great Wall of China has largely collapsed, only a few renovated stretches still big-dippering for tourists.

Begun in 19BC, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem still aches with significance.

Hadrian’s Wall built from about 100 AD was meant to keep the Picts and Scots from marauding Roman settlements in England – it failed. 

The Berlin Wall, begun in 1961, came tumbling down in 1989.

Israel has been building walls to protect its citizens from Palestinian border attacks.

And as for the great wall of Wall Street, 2007 heard it wailing and saw it reduced, for a time, to the world's most expensive rubble.

While the fall of the wall between East and West Berlin signalled the collapse of communism, the fall of Wall Street suggested that, as predicted by Karl Marx, capitalism was being destroyed by its internal contradictions. Phillip Adams – The Australian

Border walls and fences are currently going up around the world at the fastest rate since the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War helped usher in unfettered globalization, but now a backlash is underway. Globalization has gradually produced a desire in certain parts of the world for separation—particularly after a series of traumas, including the 9/11 attacks and the global financial crisis, exposed the hazards of freewheeling integration. And separation is increasingly being achieved through physical barriers. Such boundaries—structures like the existing U.S.-Mexico border fence, the Israel-West Bank barrier, and the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border fence—tend to be constructed by wealthy countries seeking to keep out the citizens of poorer countries.”  The Atlantic  May 2016

The numbers are clear: In 2015, work started on more new barriers around the world than at any other point in modern history. There are now 63 borders where walls or fences separate neighboring countries. In many ways, the barrier-building is being driven by fear. Most of the new walls are being erected within the European Union, which until recently was nearly borderless. Britain is going further, rolling up its bridges to the continent by voting to exit the E.U. Intended to counter migrants and terrorist attacks, these moves are not limited to Europe. In the Middle East, Tunisia is erecting a desert barrier with lawless Libya to insulate itself from unrest and an Islamic State-led insurgency. In Asia, India and Burma are encircling Bangladesh with hundreds of miles of razor wire to block migrants and counter religious extremism. Today, barriers on these 63 borders divide nations across four continents.”   Washington Post – October 13, 2016

John McCain's  final message, urged Americans not to “hide behind walls”.

The American people are “a nation of ideals, not blood and soil,”  “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,”

“We weaken it when he hide behind walls rather than tear them down.”

Poetic Technique:

This is another simple narrative of Frost initiating an annual ritual of fixing a dry stone wall of English tradition where he begins to question its purpose.  It is again full of contradictions and mischief.  

Frost is traditional and conservative in poetic technique, he rejected modernisms, with little innovation in style and metrical variations.Images – simple, but can be dark, sinister, horrifying, ominously foreboding.   “Poetry is above all metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another”

           “he is all pine and I am apple orchard”  Metonymy

“elves”     -  inexplicable causes - further reinforced by reference to "spells" to keep them in place.
“Old stone savage”   Traditional - Neanderthal  - troglodyte

This is one of the few times Frost appears to blatantly smear a character through language.  The juxtaposition of his mischievous questioning is denigratingly depicted by the wooden parroting of his neighbor's fathers old sayings.  The conceit of ape like ignorance.  Again Frost prefers not to be didactic, rather he merely raises the question hoping that his neighbor "said it for himself" and that we the responders will find our way out of the boundless dark.

Lyrical - Frost is a master of rhythm – variation committed to making music through sound patterns that reinforce the subject and enhance the sense of meaning.  His metrical virtuosity aids meaning and dramatizes scenes.  This is one area in which he is not afraid to experiment with an irregularity of accent across the regular beat of metre.       
                   “Verse libre, within a taut frame.  "Free verse is like playing tennis without a net”

                                  Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

Dr Barry Spurr claims the varied beat of this and other lines stalls the rhythm before it is set in motion.  It resists the iambic rhythm of wall mending.

"We wear our fingers rough with handling them".

"I let my neighbor know beyond the hill".

Suggestive – not didactic  -  Frost implies things and asks the right questions but refuses to give us his answers – perhaps because there are no absolute answers.        “My poems are set to trip the reader’s head most foremost into the boundless, into the dark”  Words, symbols, images, are riddled with equivocation, nuance, and connotations.  He playfully and mischievously delineates the paradoxes, the absurdities and the ironies of life by subtle restrained and controlled satire. Philosophical views are played off against each other rather than presented definitively or dogmatically. Frost moves from observation to reflection to mischievous pondering over life’s mysteries but seldom provides conclusive arguments; he leaves the conclusions up to the reader:                 
It takes all sorts of in and outdoor schooling                                    
  •                            To get adapted to my kind of fooling.

His neighbour cannot be  “tripped into darkess” and a new outlook; instead he merely reaches into the past for support and comes up with his father’s trite proverb,good fences make good neighbours”   This final wall cannot be breached since a proverbial axiom is absolute and unquestionable. It is a safe retreat to security and safety. 

Some Possible Themes or concerns

People believe what they want to believe, often in defiance of fact and logic.  ''Facts'' alone rarely persuade us to change our minds on anything significant. In fact, they frequently entrench a contrary view.  Psychologists call this the ''backfire effect'', where counter-evidence, far from changing our views, actually strengthens them.

Numerous studies underline how impervious to evidence our strongly held convictions are. Whether on political, religious or ethical issues, it seems our minds have an unusual power to reorganize contrary facts in order to support our beliefs.

A study by Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University concluded, "Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a 'backfire effect' in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question."

The backfire effect is a kind of self-protection mechanism. When you are confronted with data that threatens your convictions, your mind works overtime to defend you. It reorganizes information and re-establishes arguments allowing you to continue believing what you already believed.

It seems that most of us do not let the facts get in the way of a strong belief; no one is immune to the buried power of self-deception and the backfire effect.

Gregg Elshof explores the ubiquitous nature of self-deception in public and private life, in secular and religious communities - or what he calls "the amazing human capacity to break free from the constraints of rationality when truth ceases to be the primary goal of inquiry".


The playful pun of "frost" is characteristic of his "fooling around".  As Wittgenstein quipped:  "If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done".

Frost likes to use inverted word orders for emphasis.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

This saying, "Good fences make good neighbours"  may be a clichéd proverb, an assured bromide that helps his neighbour accept the assumed wisdom of his father’s.  People often resort to trite slogans or proverbs to avoid thinking. Other False language terms: Blandishments – flatteries, cajoleries, praises, fulsome, effusive, insincere platitudes, rhetoric, oratory, banality, prosaicism, clichéd phrases, bromides, cant, hollowed language,  husk, shell…..

Some folk are stubborn and their minds nigh-unchangeable.

Clichés are used by unimaginative lazy communicators because they are well known and quickly establish conduits with responders.    They can become catch-phrases used to gain access to select groups.

Their downside is that they can be dull, insipid and boring. They can become a mark of conformity and unquestioned acceptance.

Other definitions: 

A hackneyed, tired, over-used, worn-out expression, A time honoured phrase, A shop worn phrase, A well-worn canard

A pre-packaged, cellophane wrapped phrase used by people too lazy to think, A previously enjoyed sound bite.

A Grey haired grey mare, A stock reply, A pat phrase, a clinching proverb, a stock reply, patness expression, unexamined wisdom of the past, all giving the impression of conclusiveness - the last word, a finality.

Clichés are particularly popular with politicians because of the limited demands made on listeners and the simple messages (slogans) can easily resonate with wide audiences.

This is one of Frost's well known poems where again he takes a common phenomenon and by acute observation and insights raises some profound questions about human endeavour.

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