“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost is a poem about two neighbors who continuously repair a wall between their properties. In the poem, the speaker points out the irony in the wall being there, since it is not necessary, and the other neighbor maintains that the wall should be kept up because it is a tradition passed down by his father. A New Critic attempting to analyze this piece would first make a close reading of the poem, look at the plot and tension, analyze the literary elements that the poem uses (see if there’s any paradox, irony, ambiguity, tension, etc), and then they would ultimately find the resolution of the tension, which contains the meaning that we should take away from the piece. A New Critic who analyzed this poem would only look at the in-text elements and ignore any context before finding the meaning. Ultimately, a New Critic would find that the main meaning of “Mending Wall” is the tension between following tradition even though the tradition has no purpose, and the shift away from tradition while pointing out the irony and uselessness of old traditions.
To begin, a New Critic would do a close reading of the text. In this close reading, a New Critic would examine the literary elements of the text as well as the plot. The plot is simply that two neighbors are continuously mending a wall between their properties. The speaker points out the irony in the wall still existing (as walls would be more beneficial if they had livestock, but these two neighbors only have trees) and tries to tell the neighbor that the wall is no longer useful. The neighbor only continuously states “Good walls make good neighbors,” which is a saying said by his father as well; it is a traditional saying, and the neighbor does not want to step away from traditions. The New Critic would note that the tension in this piece is between the want to keep tradition and the want to point out the irony in the tradition.
The irony that the speaker uses to point out the uselessness of the tradition of the wall is that walls would be fine if there were cows, but there are no cows, only trees, and there is no danger of the trees hurting each other: “He is all pine and I am apple orchard. / My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” The speaker personifies the trees to point out the silliness in the neighbor wanting a wall between their properties. The neighbor is described almost as dark and savage as he continues to build up the wall, regardless of what the speaker says to him. He “moves in darkness” and is called “an old-stone savage,” so the speaker sees him as barbaric for following this useless tradition. He is almost insulting him in this way, and perhaps the speaker himself feels insulted: the wall is a universal symbol for the need for separation and estrangement. A New Critic would understand the wall as a concrete universal; the wall has a concrete meaning (a wall separates two things), and a universal significance—the fact that the neighbor wants the wall means that he wants to separate their two properties and put a wall up not only physically, but also to eliminate the “neighborly” relationship between them. This concrete universal is an important part into understanding how this poem can create a universal meaning simply with the imagery in the text.
The New Critic would understand this poem as a dichotomy between old traditions and new ones. The meaning of a wall is static: it represents a barrier between not only properties, but also a relationship. The fact that the neighbor wants the wall up means that the neighbor values tradition over friendship, whereas the speaker values meaning in actions, and would not make sense of the wall being up only for tradition. The inherent meaning in this poem comes from the tension that is brought about between the speaker and the neighbor, and the irony that the speaker points out in order to reject the old tradition.