Some poems of Robert Frost lend themselves well to allegorical interpretation, though that was not always the intent of the poet. The following poem is one often quoted in that regard.
This poem is set in the New England countryside, where stone walls are common as separators of one property from another.
I will divide it into segments for ease of explanation.
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Frost says there is something in Nature that does not like walls, something that shows that dislike by causing a swell in the ground beneath the wall, caused by the freezing and expansion of moisture in the soil. In saying this, Frost gives Nature a personality. The swell beneath the wall raises the rock wall above it, causing boulders to topple, leaving a hole in the wall so large that even two men could walk through it side by side.
The work of hunters is another thing:
To please the yelping dogs.
Another way stone walls are damaged is not by Nature, but by hunters chasing after a rabbit. The rabbit will hide in a space between the stones in the wall, and to get him out, the hunters will take the wall apart in that place, not leaving one stone on another. Frost says they do so “to please the yelping dogs,” who want to get at the rabbit.
…The gaps I mean,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
Frost adds that as for the gaps he is talking about — the further evidence that something in Nature does not like walls — nobody seems to see the holes in the wall made, or hear them made. Nonetheless, in the spring, when it is time to do the yearly mending of the stone walls — those mysterious gaps are always found.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And set the wall between us once again.
He tells his neighbor who lives beyond the hill know about the gaps in the wall, and they pick a day and meet at the wall, walking along it and repairing the gaps by replacing the stones — they “set the wall between us once again,” closing holes where one might walk through, and making the stone wall a firm and strong barrier again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
As they work along the wall, each walks on his own side of it — on his own property. Each man picks up and replaces the boulders that have fallen on his own side. Some of the stones are shaped like loaves of bread, which are easy to place; but some are so close to ball-shaped that Frost says playfully, “We have to use a spell to make them balance: ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’ In other words, they just re-place the ball-like stones and hope they will stay in place as the men move on down the wall — though sometimes the round stones do not remain where they should.
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
One on a side. It comes to little more:
Handling the stones makes the fingers of the men rough. Frost sees it as a basic kind of outdoor game, one man on one side, one man on the other, each moving at his own speed and skill. Nothing more important, just another country chore to be done.
There where it is we do not need the wall:
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
The poet thinks there should be some purpose to a wall, and where this wall is, it is not needed. His neighbor’s side has pine trees, and the poet’s side has an apple orchard. He tries to make the point that the wall is not necessary by telling his neighbor that the apple trees will never cross the property line and eat the pine cones beneath the neighbor’s pine trees.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
The neighbor, however, is traditional and conservative, and repeats a saying he has likely always heard: ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ By this is generally meant that a good fence will keep neighbors from overstepping their bounds, without someone having to remind them — and that makes less likelihood of trouble between neighbors.
But spring is making the poet feel mischievous, and he says that he would like to put a new notion in his neighbor’s conservative head by making him think: Why do good fences make good neighbors? Isn’t that for farms that have cows, to keep one farmer’s cows out of a neighbor farmer’s meadows and gardens? But in this case, neither neighbor owns cows. So why is the wall even needed? And he wants to tell his neighbor,
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
And to whom I was like to give offense.
That is what he would like his neighbor to think about. Before building a wall, the poet would use reason and common sense, and ask what the result would be — he would want to first know exactly what he was walling in (keeping to himself) or walling out (excluding). And he adds, he would want to know if building the wall would be likely to offend someone. This is the part of the poem most likely to be quoted in many different circumstances. Before we build walls between ourselves and other people — whether actual walls such as the “border wall” proposed between Mexico and the United States — or psychological walls, such as excluding people in one way or another from our lives or institutions — we should think carefully about why we are doing it, whether it is really a good idea, and whether we are likely to cause offense to others by it.
And now the poet finishes the notion he would like to place in his neighbor’s hard head, returning to his original, beginning statement:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
He said it for himself.
He wants his neighbor to see that there is something in Nature that does not like — that is opposed to and works against — walls, and wants them down. The poet could use the term “Elves,” to personify that mysterious anti-wall force in Nature, but he knows it is not actual elves, and he would rather the neighbor might come to the realization of that anti-wall force for himself.
Now the poet ponders his tradition-bound neighbor as he watches him mending the wall:
I see him there
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
The poet looks at his conservative neighbor carrying a stone in each hand to place on the wall, and says he is like “an old stone-age savage armed.” Frost sees him as someone who is primitive in mind and driven by tradition and belief rather than reason and common sense. He sees the neighbor moving “in darkness” — not just the darkness of the woods, or the darkness of the shade of trees, but the darkness of the absence of rational thinking — the lack of the ability to think new and different thoughts. But the neighbor will not use his head or his heart, and will not violate the saying he heard from his father: “Good fences make good neighbors.” He is like a fundamentalist to whom the Bible is law and final, and will not allow reason or thinking to affect him. And he likes recalling the simplicity and finality of what his father taught him so well that he repeats it again: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Some people are like that. It is common among fundamentalists of several religions to hold beliefs so rock-hard that they will not permit any reason or argument to penetrate or question them. One often finds the same thing in political beliefs, or in long-held racial or other prejudices. But in any kind of “wall building,” physical or psychological, one should always seek to know just what is being excluded and why, and should always bring reason and good sense to bear on such matters, mixed with a very good and essential dose of human compassion.