Let’s Kick Down Some Walls

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:

MENDING WALL

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?

8 thoughts on “Let’s Kick Down Some Walls

  1. Yeah. I don’t know why, but it makes sense to me that the narrator thinks things that conflict with his neighbor about the wall, but doesn’t push it. I get the impression of two neighbors who are used to one another and who would not wish to fall out. The narrator is an intellectual tease, not a rabble-rouser. Though he critiques his neighbor, my impression is that he likes the neighbor. Maybe I used to think that things ought to be different, even if it required conflict, but as I get older, I feel that most traditional things are unimportant. I don’t consider it important to maintain them OR to pull them down.

    Of course, I’m moody, so ask me about it tomorrow and I might be ready to blow the world up, especially if Dick Cheney and his Boy were in it.

  2. I’m afraid politics may have made me lose my perspective, Ron, because somehow I see this as a “conservative-liberal” thing with conservatives saying “because the Bible says so” and liberals wanting to be “liberal” and not step on anyone’s religion because, after all, that’s not PC, now is it?

    And right now I’m afraid I see America turning to a fortress mentality. After all why would we need to worry about how the WORLD feels about our actions? After all, it’s us versus THEM.

  3. I’d forgotten this one and it’s a delight to relish it again. “He moves in darkness” has a special meaning for me at present. Thanks for scraping the leaves aside for me.

  4. I’m not sure if it’s a conservative issue ater all. Frost say he’s suggesting otherwise in mischief. Not to convince his neighbor in some liberal argument of his, but just to make his neighbor plumb the depths. We all rely on tradition and ritual and our forefather’s sayings sometimes that we forget the real reasons for them. And there are often real good reasons. In this case, Frost admits that “something there is” that doesn’t like a wall. I think the way that’s worded is important. Frost doesn’t bend his language for meter. He bends it for meaning. So the “there is” means something. Moreover, it’s not the dogs of war, not some human tilt towards violence. That leave no stones on stones. This “there is” makes the gaps where two can pass. Not elves though. But it comes in spring. I’m supposing life itself. But I’ve talked myself into a corner and will need to come back to this. And all I really wanted to say is that I’m really enjoying this series.

  5. As I was reading it, I found myself thinking that despite the narrator’s protests, the wall does make these two men good neighbors. They come together each year to repair it together; neither man leaving it for the other to do alone. I even get the impression they don’t socialize the rest of the year, although that goes beyond the text.

    I think the power of the poem lies in this tension between the narrator’s reflections on the perniciousness of walls and how his action to maintain it belies those thoughts. So the conflict isn’t between the two men, but within the narrator himself.

  6. I’m not sure if it’s a “liberal-conservative” thing, either, Greg, but I also believe that the reader’s context sometimes determines how he sees things.

    I’m tempted to interpret the “savage” as someone who insists on “walls” between himself and others, and right now, in this season, it’s hard not to identify this concept with those who see the world in terms of “good and evil,” or “black and white.”

  7. There’s another way to interpret these lines – I’m pretty sure not what Frost had in mind, however. “Good fences make good neighbors”: a good fence remains good only through cooperation, a joint (or bipartisan) effort between well-meaning and willing people, and a common achievement that helps maintain the fence and the relationship. It isn’t the fence itself, or what’s walled in or walled out, but the carefully tended boundary that makes the difference.

  8. This has always been one of my favourite Frost poems. I once copied out and framed these lines:

    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.

    It hangs on my office wall and serves as a gentle reminder that walls should be between rooms and not people.

What do you think?