The first poem you encounter when reading “North of Boston” is the much-anthologized “Mending Wall,” and as I read it I thought to myself, “I hope I find a poem that I like better than this to write about.”
It’s not that I don’t like the poem. I liked it when I first read it over thirty years ago, and I still like it today. However, I really don’t want to discuss something everyone has already read. Although I liked the next poem, “The Death of the Hired Man,” another popular poem and I considered discussing it instead, I realized I didn’t like it nearly as well. To make a long story not so short, after reading 80 more pages of poetry I couldn’t find another poem that I liked nearly as well as “Mending Wall.”
I’m convinced that Frost knew it was the best poem in this section and purposely put it at the beginning, just as he begins the next section with the even more famous “The Road Not Taken.” Like a good recording artist, Frost knew his “hit singles” and used them to his advantage.
Hopefully, you, like me, haven’t read the poem in awhile and re-reading it brings new insights or at least reacquaints you with values that are important to you:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulder in the sun,
And make 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 a 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.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
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 offense.
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.”
I must admit that time and my image of Frost as a curmudgeonly New Englander had distorted my memory of the poem, leaving me with little more than that famous line “Good fences make good neighbors.” Somehow I managed to forget that Frost is, afterall, a “modern” poet with a modern view of life. In other words, like most modern poets his poems tend to be multi-dimensional and ambiguous.
Although it’s clear that the neighbor he’s working with to rebuild the fence feels that a strong fence is the best way to stay friendly, it’s not at all clear that the narrator feels the same. When the narrator suggests there’s no need to repair the fence between the apple orchard and pine trees, the neighbor’s only reply is, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Mischievously, the narrator asks the “big” question, why? Asking whether a fence isn’t apt to “give offense” to a neighbor rather than convert them into a good neighbor. No matter how hard he’s pushed the neighbor will not go beyond “his father’s saying.” Our final image of the neighbor is captured in the stark image, “In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. He moves in darkness”” His blind obedience to the past makes him little more than an unthinking savage.
The more interesting character in the poem, though, is the narrator himself. On the surface, he seems more enlightened than his simple-minded neighbor, but strangely enough he continues year after year to rebuild the very wall that he feels is unnecessary. It is, after all, the narrator who, “let my neighbor know beyond the hill” when it was time to mend walls again. At the very least, then, he is complicit in maintaining the old beliefs. Though he claims to see rebuilding the wall as just “another kind of outdoor game, / One on a side” he “plays the game,” does what’s expected, and, in doing so, probably remains a member in “good standing” in his community.
The real question, of course, is whether it makes him any less of “an old-stone savage” than his neighbor. Or is he worse than his neighbor because he knows better and still goes along with it, adding hypocrisy to his savagery? How many of us personally question old, conservative ideas yet go along with them because it’s easier that way, and, besides, we don’t want to offend friends or family?