Answer: The theme of a work is not its subject, but rather its central idea, which may be stated directly or indirectly. In literature, theme means the central/dominating idea, the message implicit in a work. Theme is a comment, an observation or insight about the subject. The subject of a poem may be a flower, but its theme may be a comment on the fleeting nature of existence. It is not necessary that a work must have a theme. Some work, like a detective story, may be written primarily for entertainment. There can be more than one theme in a work of art. A skilful artist can integrate several themes in a single work of art. The themes or messages implicit in the poem “Mending Wall” are various, but they have been well-integrated in the poem by the superb artistic skill of the author.
The poet brings in the two characters — one young man and another elderly man — representing two opposite views regarding walls between the lands of two people. The young man seems to be the mouthpiece of the poet himself. The elderly person, the speaker’s neighbor, represents the old, illogical view, embodied in the traditional saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The young speaker opines that there is something in nature that does not love a wall, does not accept any obstruction between two human beings.
Even in nature, if something starts up, some mysterious power makes it crumble down. Even though the young man argues that wall may be necessary when there is possibility of one’s cattle damaging the other’s crop, and no wall is necessary when there is no such possibility, the elderly man insists that “Good fences make good neighbors.” The latter is not amenable to reason, he sticks to the old maxim though it is illogical. The poet’s view seems to come through his mouthpiece the young man who puts forward argument regarding when to have a wall, and when not to have.
The poet gives a logical explanation of his opinion that we do not need a wall, as is expressed through the mouth of the young speaker. When there are possibilities of our crops or gardens being damaged by the animals like cows, we may need a wall. Except in such cases, we do not need a wall. It so happened with the young speaker in the poem that one spring he found that the wall between his apple orchard and his elderly neighbor’s pine trees had openings here and there, as the boulders lay scattered around, away from the wall. They both had been on either side of the wall, putting the boulders on the wall. The young speaker did not feel that there was any necessity for mending the wall. The young man’s perspective seems to be the poet’s argument against having wall, or mending a broken wall.
The elderly neighbor is the representative of the old, traditional view of the stone age. In the poem, we come to know that in a spring time the wall between the apple orchard of the speaker and the pine trees of his neighbor, was found to have had openings in places. He informed his neighbor about it, and they met at the place of the wall at an appointed time. Though the speaker argued that in the existing circumstances it was not necessary to mend the wall because he had an apple orchard and his neighbor a pine garden. “He is all pine and I am apple orchard.” These gardens are not likely to run into each other. But his neighbour would not listen to him. He repeatedly said, “Good fences make good neighbors”, and worked hard at mending the wall. He kept bringing up the boulders, grasped on the top. In that action he looked like a savage of the Stone Age. The poet symbolically presents his ignorance which is natural phenomenon of the stone age when people were in the darkness of ignorance.
The poet has conveyed a great truth about the tendencies in nature not to endure any barrier or impediment. The following lines convey the message—
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it.
And spills the upper boulders in the sun.”
The lines indicate the natural tendency of everywhere not to love wall or any obstruction, or any line of demarcation between things. This tendency is also present in human nature. The young speaker in the poem seems to speak through the mouth of the poet himself. The natural tendency to sweep away all that stands as a wall is perceived very clearly in nature. When a ground swells with frozen show, it begins to stand like a wall. But when it grows to some height, it automatically falls down, and the frozen snow scatters around to make the ground level again. Likewise the thing happens with the hard things like stone. Whenever stones pile up, the upper boulders are exposed to the intense heat of the sun. They expand, and ultimately lose proportion which makes them stand on the other boulders, and ultimately crumble down.
There are also other far-reaching implications, found in the poem. It states one of the greatest problems of our time. The problem is: whether national walls should be made stronger for our protection, or whether they should be done away with, because they shrink the scope of our progress towards mutual understanding and ultimate brotherhood. Some other readers think that it is a symbolic poem. In the voices of the younger and older men in this poem, we can discover the clash of two forces. One is the spirit of revolt which challenges tradition, and the other is the spirit of restraint which demands that conventions must be upheld.
There is a contradiction in the poem which has also an implication. The poem says, “Some thing there is that doesn’t love a wall. But it again says—
“Good fences make good neighbors.”
This contradiction is a necessary one because the statements are made by two people of opposite character, and different ages. From their view point, both are right. Man cannot live without walls, boundaries, and self-limitations and limits. But yet man resents all bonds, and he becomes happy if the boundary line or wall is removed. This is a paradox and a reality in human life.