In an essay for The Reaper magazine titled "How to Write Narrative Poetry," poets Robert McDowell and Mark Jarman suggest that there are ten considerations that must be addressed in a successful narrative poem. These ten points are: a beginning, a middle and an end; observation; compression of time; containment; illumination of private gestures; understatement; humor; a distinct sense location or setting; memorable characters; and a compelling subject. As a narrative poem, Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" passes The Reaper test in several ways by presenting the reader with a situation of a man repairing a simple stone wall with his neighbor. What emerges from the poem is not simply a well-told story or even a detailed sense of the characters and their experiences, but a statement on the nature of human relations, boundaries, and individual identity.
The poem opens with a commonplace observation of how a wall winters and shifts as a result of freezing and thawing. Frost translates this observation into a universal truth so that the simple act of mending a wall becomes a gesture of supreme importance. The explicit quality of understatement is evident in this process. Frost sticks to his subject with an emphasis on direct speech--clear and unpoetic diction that adds a deceptive sense of the mundane to the action; yet the aphoristic structure of the opening line, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," stays with the reader as a maxim that borders on an axiom. The sense of universal truth, or at least applicable observation that can be assumed into the shape of a law or saying, is an essential part of the poem's containment. The wall mending, the action between the neighbors, is all the world that Frost needs to portray in order to establish a philosophical statement on human relations. This containment, the unified limitation of both time and space and the focus on a very simple and uncomplicated action, is yet another means by which Frost uses understatement to his advantage.
The containment qualities of "Mending Wall," coupled with the sense of understatement and expression of a large truth in a very small way, is achieved through a very limited but well-defined setting. The delineated differences between the two fields, "He is all pine and I am apple orchard," is a modest yet distinctive expression of the setting. This is a world of boundaries where the setting is more than a backdrop to the meaning of the action and the poem--it is a metaphor for separateness, and the reason for the action is the maintenance of the distinction between two very unique worlds. Frost strikes a note of wry and subtle humor when his wall mender observes, "My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines." To this, the neighbor offers a rebuttal in the form of a proverb: "Good fences make good neighbors." The separation of the two farms and the two worlds within the poem is further enhanced by the strange quality of separation within the communication process between the two characters. One offers a joke. The other replies with a piece of unquestioned wisdom that he repeats, almost for rhetorical emphasis, at the conclusion of the poem. The communication between the two characters is understated, to say the least, but the message is conveyed elliptically that not only is this a poem about the separation of farms, but the separation of perspectives and modes of expression.
The wall mending, the action between the neighbors, is all the world that Frost needs to portray in order to establish a philosophical statement on human relations.
The differences between the two men, articulated in the act of possessing a wall and maintaining it for the sake of neighborliness, are a source of humor in the poem. Both men are focused on the same action and working toward the same end, yet their end is separateness: "To each the boulders that have fallen to each. / And some are loaves and some so nearly balls / We have to use a spell to make them balance." The irony of this situation is that they appear to be working not only against the destructive properties of climatic changes, but against unseen forces that they both acknowledge, a key element of the subtle humor which Frost builds into the poem. There appears to be an element of luck-of- the-draw involved in the work: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, / That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him / But that's not elves exactly, and I'd rather / He said it for himself." It appears that both men are thinking the same thing: that something in nature is working against them, that although they consciously and logically dismiss an animate presence in nature that destroys the wall, they both jokingly admit to its possible existence. Both utter "spells" to make the stones balance and stay in place once they have moved on to the next piece of the fallen barrier: "Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
This reading of nature as containing animate possibilities suggests that for the narrator, at least, Frost has created a structure of an inner life, a psychology that is essential to creating a memorable character. The narrator muses to himself: "I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head: / `Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it / Where there are cows? But there are no cows." The sense of character which delineates each of the two men is established in different ways. For the narrator it is through this sense of the inner self observing and speculating on his opposite. For the neighbor, character is established by the process of understatement, so that he is composed with what he does not say and appears to the reader as a quiet individual of few words.
Characterization, in a process that is drawn more from the structures of fiction than from poetry, is further established through Frost's eye for minute detail and "illumination of private gestures." The gestures are not simply the details of the of wall mending process, although they contribute significantly to the characterizations Frost is trying to convey; they are the means by which the reader pictures and remembers the two individuals. The narrator focuses on his neighbor's gestures so that his character is created not through what he says but through what he does: "I see him there / Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top / In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. / He moves in darkness as it seems to me, / Not of woods only and the shade of trees." Here is a man of few words and many actions. The narrator, on the other hand, is a dreamer. His character is developed through what he thinks, rather than through what he says or does. He spends most of the poem watching the other man work, honoring his reticence, and imagining a number of speculative scenarios that he fails to implement either as conversation or observation. Frost, therefore, has not only created characterizations of two men in search of separateness; he has created two separate and fully fleshed entities and that speak of both differences and of poles of human types, and it is for these reasons that they are memorable to the reader.
What is, perhaps, the most important aspect of "Mending Wall," and what categorizes it under McDowell and Jarman's classifications as a successful narrative poem, is the work's sense of drama. As in the case of classical theater, such as that identified by Aristotle in The Poetics, the drama of the poem is conveyed through a unity of time and place. "Mending Wall" focuses on a single time and a single place, and the actions could, plausibly, take place within the "real time" of the poem. This may appear to contradict the nature of narrative: after all, a narrative is, by definition, a sequence of connected events that form a single concept or story. In "Mending Wall," there is one event that is composed of small gestures. But what Frost is doing is making the gestures into events in themselves by focusing on the minute actions of the process, so that the narrative is a sequence of actions rather than a sequence of events. It is the enlargement of each minor action that contributes to the drama and to the success of the poem as a narrative. As a narrative poem in the McDowell and Jarman definition, "Mending Wall" does compress time, but only in a very minimal sense because the actions are so detailed and so precise.
The one outstanding question that remains to be answered is does "Mending Wall" have a compelling subject? Frost seems to be conscious of the need to make the action into an allegory, and he moves toward this through the uttering and repeating of maxims such as "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," and "Good fences make good neighbors." The point of the poem appears to be the demonstration of wisdom as a result of practice rather than the discovery of a truth through a process, a revelation, and a denouement. What the reader must remember is that wisdom, the central thrust of the poem, is a result of repeated processes and accumulated observations. The "spring mending-time" that Frost mentions is an annual necessity and part of regular farm maintenance--a calendar event that can be foreseen. The destructive forces of nature can also be foreseen. It should be remembered that the books of Wisdom in The Bible, such as Ecclesiastes, are not stories of individuals discovering the truth as much as they are acknowledgments of the way things work. The presence of wisdom rather than discovery is at the root of the neighbor's tenacious hold on his maxim, "Good fences make good neighbors." Wisdom is something to be accepted, not debated, and the narrator observes of his neighbor, "He will not go behind his father's saying, / And he likes the thought so well / He says it again."
What is compelling about "Mending Wall" is that it challenges the convention of the narrative poem as a process (seen in fictional structures) of problem, struggle, climax, resolution and denouement. Instead, Frost's poem presents the concept of two individuals confronting and accepting human truths. Their persistence, in both the action and the ideas that the action expresses, is in itself compelling and engaging.