Good Fences Make Good Fences

Tuesday, 17 November 2009, 15:31 | Category : Poetry
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Mending Wall
(Photo courtesy the Image Gallery of the American and New England Studies program of the University of Southern Maine.)

Once again today I heard a radio commentator repeat “Robert Frost’s good advice”, that “good fences make good neighbors”. And I wonder, has anyone who repeats that phrase ever actually read the poem? (The poem, by the way, is “Mending Wall“)

“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;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again…”

Frost goes on to talk about his how his neighbor insists on repairing the wall, while Frost is questioning why the wall needs to exist at all:

“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.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“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 offence..”

But his neighbor is trapped in the self-necessity of the wall:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down!” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.””

This is why we still need to teach literature in high school!

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