Robert Frost's New England Poetics Of Isolation And Community In Humanity's State Of Nature
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," reads the first line of Robert Frost's classic poem, "Mending Wall." The narrative of Frost's most famous poem depicts two farmers, one "all" pine and the other apple orchard," who are engaged in the almost ritualistic action of summer fence mending amongst New England farmers. However, the apple farmer in the voice of the poet notes that his "apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines." Yet still, the farmers persist in the mending of fences and the keeping of barriers up between one another. This theme of attempted isolation and then connection on the part of Frost in his various poetic personas that is mirrored in the behavior of the natural world runs through "Mending Wall," "The Telephone," and "The Wood-pile."
The larger theme of the poem "Mending Wall," although it is superficially about physical walls is the disconnection between human beings that is enforced by legal property lines, by human and constructed technology in the form of fences and lines between humanity that are delegated by carefully surveyed and separating farm plots. This disconnection is symbolically threatened by the "something there is that doesn't love a wall, / That wants it down," a threat of breaking down artificial barriers between human beings that is not enforced so much by the poet, at least in the speaker's own perceptions, but by the natural world itself.
Technology creates such rifts between human beings, even while nature breaks them down. Humanity, in the primitive form of construction through stones, and of myths and cliches that hold that supposedly fences make good neighbors try to keep away one another. Even the modern technology of human construction that is supposed to design better connections, and create more stable ties between human beings in the spread-out modern world in the form of the telephone, creates barriers -- in "The Telephone" it is the poet who flees connections with humanity, as he wanders in desired solitude. "First tell me what it was you thought you heard," says the speaker of "The Telephone," showing how even modern technology creates a sense of instability of connection between others, by creating misperceptions of hearing rather than aids to hearing.
Rather than the literal implement that he could use to call a friend, the speaker holds a flower that resembles the modern telephone, and the questions the speaker asks suggests the child's game of confusion of words, rather than solidity of words and perceptions created through a constant connection via the telephone with others: "I listened and I thought I caught the word -- What was it? Did you call me by my name?" The constant questioning recalls the mischievous questioning of the speaker of "Mending Wall" of his neighbor on the other side of the fence, suggesting that Frost sees the poet in the role of the societal gadfly or questioner, questioning the conventional wisdom of the fathers that good fences make good neighbors, and that technical communication is superior and more clear than the communication of the natural world. The poet's desired connection, however foolish, through the natural world of flowers also parallels nature's breaking down of the fences in "Mending Wall."
However, more powerful than the human-constructed telephone is the language of the flowers, for only in nature does Frost cry out to others, when amongst humanity he sought solitude, as is evidenced by his early wandering at the beginning of the poem. In "The Telephone," what is subtle and naturally spoken in nature is more truthful than what is exchanged overtly. "I leaned my head, / And holding by the stalk, I listened and I thought I caught the word."
Thus, like "Mending Wall" the poet in "The Telephone" begins in a state of isolation, rather than human connection, even though the speaker evidently seeks some source of communication and human connection. "When I was just as far as I could walk," begins the poet, in other words, as far away as the poet can walk away from humanity, the poet suddenly gives into an impulse to use a flower as a telephone. The fence menders of "Mending Wall" create disconnections between themselves through walls, yet are still forced to communicate because of the nature of their task, which no one person can complete alone.
To suggest that even the most isolated humans seek connection, Frost makes frequent use of rhetorical and real questions in his poems. He is always probing, in "The Telephone" asking: "Do you remember what it was you said?'" and, in "Mending Wall" "Why do they," that is fences, "make good neighbors." The poet does not receive 'real' or spoken answers from his living subjects, not from the flower or the forces of nature that wrangle their ways into the cracks of the dividing walls, or from his neighbor. But the mere fact that the poet articulates such questions suggests that these questions are significant. His willingness to ask such questions marks the poet as a kind of outsider to the community where he is located, a community that despite his physical actions of wandering and fence mending, he wishes to be a part of as a fellow human being.
Where is the poet located, one asks, to use his device of rhetorical questioning? New England, of course, as is noted by the markers of apple trees and harsh winters in "Mending Wall," and the cool and sparse spring of the flowers of "The Telephone." Frost's landscape is harsh, as is the emotional territory of his poem's speaker and the subjects he addresses. Another poem that similarly deploys ways of humanity's attempts to keep the natural elements -- and also human closeness -- at bay with technology explicitly labels itself as located in New England, that of the 1915 poem "The Wood-pile."
The poet begins the poem, as with "Mending Wall" and "The Telephone," heading out away from his fellow human beings in a state of aimless wandering -- when he suddenly decides to turn back because he feels alone: "Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day/I paused and said, 'I will turn back from here." The poet because of his extremely isolated state in a swamp, however, cannot address himself to another speaker, a situation paralleled in "The Telephone." The poet has moved away from humanity and has physically constructed isolating walls from other human beings through his motion, which he now regrets. He evidently desires some connection with humanity, as he suddenly speaks to an unseen and unknown, apparently nonexistent auditor in the first lines of the poem.
Then, there is an intrusion of a small bird into the narrative of the verse, prompting a dialogue between Frost and the natural fabric around him, as he speaks to the bird. The poem's reader, of course, is always the poet's only real heartfelt listener, even in "Mending Wall," where the poet's companion does not understand the apple-farming poet's references to elves. Instead of the hardheadedness and hardheartedness of an isolated neighbor, locked in his father's cliches and philosophy of good fencing, however, the poet finds himself caught, in "hard snow." But when the poet notes "a small bird flew before me," the reader gains a sense that the poet is aware that in nature, he is never entirely alone, no matter how securely he may build, accumulate wood, or simply flee the company of his fellow human beings. The bird "was careful/To put a tree between us when he lighted, / And say no word to tell me who he was/Who was so foolish as to think what he thought. / He thought that I was after him for a feather-/The white…