Sky, mountains, and a pathway leading through a stone wall
Photo by Ryan Hughes.

Broken Walls & Lonely Nights

An essay for English 111 circa 2002; it has been re-edited for clarity

In “Mending Wall” and “Acquainted with the Night,” poet Robert Frost explores two distinct viewpoints regarding alienation. The speaker of each poem recalls a time in which he felt alienated, whether from an individual or society. The tenets of alienation—exclusion and isolation—are present in both poems, but the emotional responses from the speakers could not be more different. Frost suggest that alienation can be both a blessing and a curse.

In “Mending Wall,” the speaker describes an encounter with his neighbor at a stone wall separating their properties. Each spring, they go about mending a portion that routinely becomes undone, whether by an element of nature “That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, / And spills the upper boulders in the sun” (lines 2-3) or by the acts of hunters who “have left not one stone on a stone, / But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, / To please the yelping dogs” (lines 7-9).

On this occasion, the neighbors have met “to walk the line / And set the wall between [them] once again” (lines 13-14). The description of how they replace the stones possesses a territorial quality; the neighbors are not only repairing a physical boundary but also widening the gulf between them. The speaker comments on the mended portion, saying that “where it is [they] do not need the wall” (line 23). Perhaps the boundary is naturally delineated by trees or elevation. He shares this observation with his neighbor and receives a surprising reply: “Good fences make good neighbors” (line 27).

The neighbor’s reply delivers a clear message: good neighbors do not encroach on each other’s property or mingle in their lives. He wishes to repair the wall to keep them separated. This bluntness does not sit well with the speaker; immediately, he challenges the response with questions—albeit only in his imagination: “Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it / Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. / Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense.” (30-34).

The speaker is at a loss for why his neighbor feels this way. A sense of alienation assaults him, seemingly unprovoked. What has he done that he should be regarded as troublesome? Should he withdraw from the lives of his other neighbors? Do they feel as this neighbor does? The speaker disagrees with his neighbor’s statement but knows he is resolved “not to go behind his father’s saying” (line 43). As if to hammer the point home, his neighbor “likes having thought of it so well / He says it again,” (lines 44-45).

The setting for “Acquainted with the Night” provides a darker canvas for the events that transpire and how alienation is perceived. This poem’s speaker views alienation in a less antagonistic way than the speaker of “Mending Wall,” proudly acknowledging that it is familiar and welcome in his life.

In the first line, the speaker reveals that he has “been one acquainted with the night”—he has “walked out in rain – and back in rain” (line 2), and “out-walked the furthest city light” (line 3). During these outings, while quietly looking down the “saddest city lane” and seeing the “watchman on his beat,” the speaker has walked alone under the cover of darkness without so much as city lights to guide him. He is unwilling to explain why he haunts the night in silent passing. Perhaps he has no answer.

A break in the nighttime silence “[comes] over houses from another street” (line 9). The speaker describes it as “an interrupted cry” from “far away” that was “not to call [him] back or say good-bye” (line 10). Was he expecting someone might call him back? Did a relationship end without closure? Whatever the reason, the speaker has chosen to alienate himself. He does not view alienation as a punishment but rather a familiar, comfortable state. Curiously, the speaker personifies the night as someone with whom he was “one acquainted.” This account reads like old friends catching up.

High above the darkness, the moon is “One luminary clock against the sky” (line 12) that “Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right” (line 13). The speaker realized that his alienation, whether self-imposed or otherwise, could only last a while. He would eventually return to a life among the populated lights. The speaker knew that his loneliness would remain long after the night passed into morning.

Alienation is perceived differently between Frost’s two speakers and elicits opposing reactions. In “Mending Wall,” the speaker is offended by his neighbor’s preference for alienation; further, he cannot understand the reasoning. The speaker states that walls are normally used to keep things in or out. He asks himself, “Isn’t it / Where there are cows? But here there are no cows” (lines 30-31). The speaker wonders if his neighbor equates him with a lowly animal that wanders off and gets into trouble.

Instead of rejecting alienation, the speaker of “Acquainted with the Night” embraces it as an old friend. He recalls his acquaintance with the night (and the ensuing alienation) as unique, something he may have earned over time by going beyond the “furthest light.” He does not wish for any friends; instead, he enjoys having the night to himself. Alienation did not find him but rather vice versa. Unfortunately for the speaker, his lonely evening could not last.

The speaker of “Mending Wall” perceives his instance of alienation as undesirable, degrading, and even hurtful. He sees it as something that prohibits him from making a friend. In contrast, the speaker in “Acquainted with the Night” wants no friends save the one he has reserved for himself: loneliness. For him, alienation is an escape from the rigors of life. He would prefer to hide there indefinitely.

The only overlap between Frost’s speakers is that alienation removes people from their surroundings—for better or for worse. The difference is a matter of perspective.