Mending wall

The opening work of New England poet Robert Frost’s volume North of Boston, Mending Wall is a sophisticated, rational man’s mischief with the psychological necessity an obsolete wall commands for his primitive neighbour.

Mending Wall

Robert Frost

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.
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:
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.
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 very much enjoyed reading this collection of the poem’s critics. From it you learn that Robert Frost considered Mending Wall “a poem that was spoiled by being applied”. Lawrence Raab:

“When President John F. Kennedy inspected the Berlin Wall he quoted the poem’s first line: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” His audience knew what he meant and how the quotation applied. And on the other side of that particular wall, we can find another example of how the poem has been used. Returning from a visit to Russia late in his life, Frost said, “The Russians reprinted ‘Mending Wall’ over there, and left that first line off.” He added wryly, “I don’t see how they got the poem started.” What the Russians needed, and so took, was the poem’s other detachable statement: “Good fences make good neighbors.” They applied what they wanted. “I could’ve done better for them, probably,” Frost said, “for the generality, by saying:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
Something there is that does.

“Why didn’t I say that?” Frost asked rhetorically. “I didn’t mean that. I meant to leave that until later in the poem. I left it there.”

“Mending Wall” famously contains these two apparently conflicting statements. One begins the poem, the other ends it, and both are repeated twice. Which are we supposed to believe? What does Frost mean? “The secret of what it means I keep,” he said. Of course he was being cagey, but not without reason.

At a reading given at the Library of Congress in 1962 Frost told this anecdote:

In England, two or three years ago, Graham Greene said to me, “The most difficult thing I find in recent literature is your having said that good fences make good neighbors.”

And I said, “I wish you knew more about it, without my helping you.”

We laughed, and I left it that way.”

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