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Robert Frost’s Mending Wall as the Balance Between Tradition and Progress

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The poem “Mending Wall” written by Robert Frost in 1914 is the first piece of work in his second book of poetry “North of Boston,” which was published in 1915. The piece presents a modernist challenge to existing social structures through a depiction of the life of two neighbors who meet every spring to walk along the wall that separates their properties and fix it where needed. The neighbors differ from one another, mainly one is the “old-fashioned” stubborn traditionalist, the other one (the speaker) seems to be a progressive, logic individual. It comes as no surprise then that the traditionalist neighbor is in favor of long established habits without seeming to know the meaning behind them, he repeats his father’s words and still insist on having a wall, something that will separate him and his neighbor. The other one, a progressive individual believes in common sense and logic and questions previously established order of things- the presence of the wall itself. Despite the fact that neighbors disagree on certain aspects, the wall unites them rather than separates them because they work on it together, and it seems to benefit both of them in some ways. In this manner, it could be said that presence of the wall stands for tradition where repairing it represents progress. In his work, Frost highlights the dilemma between tradition and progress and emphasizes how important it is to find a sense of balance between those two.

Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, California in 1874 during the period of reconstruction after Civil-war. He was one of the nation’s best-loved American poet and the winner of four Pulitzer Prizes. He is known for works such as “Mending Wall,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and “The Road Not Taken,” a poem frequently read at graduation ceremonies. Although there are few aspects that differ Robert Frost from other modernist poets including a rejection of modernist internationalism there is no doubt that his career gained momentum during the modern period and Frost himself falls into category of modern poets (Cox 3). As stated by Reginald L. Cook in The Dimensions of Robert Frost, “the rigor in the discipline came from Frost’s study of the classics while his taste was influenced by the strong current of native realism as well as by the genteel tradition and the Victorians” (Cook 4). Additionally, as James M. Cox editor of Robert Frost A Collection of Critical Essays argues “the discrepancy in age between Frost the man and Frost the poet, his emergence during the interlude between the collapse of the old order and the beginning of the new, and his own experience- all serve to indicate Frost’s ambiguous position in relation to what we call modern literature” (Cox 3). In this manner, Frost’s style of writing could be described as a blend of 19th century tradition and 20th century technique. Frost was a writer who was keen on using various characters and background drawn from New England which set him apart from many modern poets. He was well known for writing about nature, ordinary people and life using very often poetic techniques such as imagery and humor. In his poems, Frost achieved an internal dynamic “by playing the rhythms of ordinary speech against formal patterns of line and containing them within traditional forms” (Baym 1086).

Having introduced Robert Foster and his style of writing it is reasonable to briefly refer to the historical context of modernism. Modernist literature began in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many scholars argue that modernism is characterized by a will to break with established forms “in poetry, they mixed slang with elevated language, experimented with free verse, and often studded their works with difficult allusions and disconnected images” (“Modernist Experiment: Overview”). One of the literary traits where character, protagonist, or narrator questions the “previously sustaining structures of human life, whether social, political, religious, or artistic” (1078) and may no offer concrete alternatives could be easily could be easily acknowledge in the poem. At the very beginning of the piece, the speaker questions previously established habits, structures of human life. In addition, he goes as far as to question neighbor’s personal point of view which reminds the reader of another literary trait of Modernism, mainly that the stability of the plot, setting, external world, and/ or point of view is brought into question (1079). During the time of the World War I, many thinkers such as Sigmund Freud questioned the rationality of mankind. Modernism continued to gain popularity during the 1920s with works of artists such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. Many of those writers began exposing the “irrationality at the roots of a supposedly rational world” (..)

Despite the fact that Robert Frost wrote the poem more than hundred years ago it is still relevant in current times because there are individuals around us who could be described as very “old fashioned” and those who seems to be exceptionally modernist. The “old fashioned” people do not feel a need to experience any type of changes and frequently they have a hard time accepting others opinion if it differs from their own. The other group of individuals that we are also surrounded by are those who believe in progress. In this group we might find people who do not see a point in cherishing the past/tradition, they might think they know what is the best. The mentioned dilemma: tradition vs modernity could been seen for instance between young and elderly people, who share different points of views on certain topics. The way the author wrote his piece allows the reader to understand it in one’s unique way, there is no “right” or “wrong” analysis of it, which means that poem can be applied in various spheres of life, including politics or every day life that is why I believe it is important to analyze it in social context.

In terms of form, Frost’s “Mending Wall” consists of lines of equal lengths, there are no stanza breaks. The meter of the poem is blank verse and there is a repetition of the phrase, “Good fences make good neighbors” (“Literary Devices”). In addition, to some “Mending Wall” gives a feeling of a conversation between the narrator and his neighbor. In the first eleven lines of the work, one might notice imagery which is an author’s use of figurative language to add depth to his poem and appeal to reader’s physical senses for instance “He is all pine and I am apple orchard” (Frost). Moreover, the poem contains many symbols, and author uses a metaphor to compare the stone blocks to loaves and balls. In addition, as suggested by George Monteiro in his book Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance “the answers presented in “Mending Wall” are somewhat less than clear-cut. The reason is at least partly that Frost has purposely and purposefully left out of his poem some important information” (Monteiro 128). In this manner, Frost’s style of writing is not only about what is in the poem but also what is missing that makes it unique and intriguing.

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In this part of the essay, I would like to define tradition and progress and analyze significant passages in the poem that will contribute to understanding the importance of balance between tradition and progress as highlighted in Frost’s poem. According to Cambridge Dictionary tradition is “a belief, principle, or way of acting that people in a particular society or group have continued to follow for a long time, or all of these belief, etc. in a particular society or group” (Cambridge Dictionary). The word “tradition” comes from the Latin word tradere which means to transmit, to hand over (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). In “Mending Wall” the reader is confronted with the “old-fashioned” neighbor who will not go behind his father’s saying, and keeps repeating “Good fences make good neighbors,” there is no doubt that having a wall is a tradition passed down to him by his father. Although the neighbor does not want to explain the speaker why the presence of wall is so meaningful to him, it does not necessarily mean that his point of view is invalid nor that he blindly follows the tradition, maybe he has his own reasons that stand behind the importance of having a wall. From the reading of the poem, the wall turns out to be something that unites both neighbors. Having this in mind, one might wonder, are traditions good or bad? It is safe to say, that it all depends on the circumstances. On one hand, just because something is repeated does not mean it is not of importance, but on the other hand just because something has been done for instance by parents does not necessary mean that it needs to be done by the next generations. To decide weather tradition is bad or good, one must have a broader view of the specific situation.

Having analyzed briefly the meaning of tradition, it is useful to look at the definition of progress. As stated in the Cambridge Dictionary progress is a “movement to an improved or more developed state, or to a forward position” (Cambridge Dictionary). In Frost’s poem, the speaker seems to believe in common sense, logic and progress, throughout the story, he questions the existence of the wall. He enumerates reasons why the presence of the wall is meaningless to him and his neighbor. The speaker claims that “he is all pine and I am apple orchard,” hence he does not see any valid reasons for the existence of the wall. It seems logic to destroy it if it does not fulfill any role, after all neither of the trees will cross their respective boundaries. In addition, he says “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out” (Frost, lines 33-24). It is necessary for him to ask questions about something that he does not understand, that is why he goes on saying “why do they make good neighbors?” (31). As one might notice, the speaker tries to understand the point of view presented by his neighbor. This passage reminds me of the idea of the progress itself, in order to improve (progress), one must ask questions. Once again it is worth considering whether the progress is always a good idea? Similarly, as in the case of tradition, I believe it all depends on the circumstances under which the progress takes place. On one hand if the author would have follow his intuition and destroy the wall, he might lose the only chance to spend time with his neighbor. On the other hand, his curiosity about the existence of the wall is the thing that makes him meet the neighbor “and on a day we meet to walk the line” (13). In this manner neither tradition nor progress is always a right choice, it is about the balance between both of them, one cannot exist without the other.

Another significance passage to my understanding of the poem could be find in the line 42, mainly “He moves in darkness as it seems to me” (42), those are the words spoken by the progressive neighbor. In reality, people frequently do not understand someone’s point of view, to them that person might “move in a dark”. Just like progress symbolizes moving forward, the tradition goes back to the past, some might believe that if one is attached to the tradition, he or she moves in the dark, but the dark place to one person could mean opposite to the other. In addition, the words “to me,” could stand for the fact that the speaker is aware that it is just his opinion, and for others behavior of his neighbor might seem rational.

Lastly, in my essay I would like to focus on the symbol of the wall which also serves as irony because its role is both, uniting but also separating. In the context of my paper, the wall symbolizes not only a physical boundary between the two properties but above all something in between tradition and progress, a middle ground, which allows the “old-fashioned” neighbor to go along with a “progressive” individual. It comes as no surprise that frequently walls are designed to protect and secure, hence walls serves as a separation. In the poem by Robert Frost the wall plays a significant role in separating but also uniting neighbors together (Hinrichsen and Dempsey). In other words, although the wall separates two individuals, the reparation of the wall gives them a reason to meet together, as speaker argues “and on a day we meet to walk the line” (Frost), since they do it regularly it could be said that fixing the wall became a tradition that they both cultivate.

To sum up, Robert Frost has been known as one of the key figure of modernist poetry in the United States. In his poem “Mending Wall” Frost portraits the life of two neighbors whose properties are divided by the wall. The neighbors differ from each other, the traditional one believes in the importance of the wall, the progressive speaker questions the need for any barriers. Ultimately, the wall between properties becomes an uniting aspect as both of the neighbors work on it together. I believe that “Mending Wall” emphasizes the importance of having a balance in life between holding on blindly to tradition and focusing only on the progress. None of those paths are successful on their own, what really matters is to look beyond obvious but to not forget the traditions which very often provide context for thoughtful reflections that leads us to progress.

WORKS CITED

  1. Frost, Robert. “Mending Wall.” The Poetry of Robert Frost. New York: Hold, Rinehart and Winston Inc., 1969. 33-34.
  2. Baym, Nina, et al, editors. Norton Anthology of American Literature. Introduction. 6th ed., vol. D, Norton 2002, pp.1071-86.
  3. Cook, Reginald, L. The Dimensions of Robert Frost. New York, Rinehart & Company, Inc, 1959.
  4. Cox, James, M. editor. Robert Frost A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962.
  5. Hinrichsen, Lisa, and Sean Dempsey. “The Good Neighbor: Robert Frost and the Ethics of Community.” The Robert Frost Review, no. 21, 2011, pp. 8–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43897695.
  6. “Tradition.” Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/. Accessed 25 th of November, 2019.
  7. “Progress.” Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/. Accessed 25 th of November, 2019.

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Robert Frost’s Mending Wall as the Balance Between Tradition and Progress [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2023 Feb 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/robert-frosts-mending-wall-as-the-balance-between-tradition-and-progress/
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