Robert Frost on Good Neighbours — “The Mending Wall”
What would you think of a neighbour who planted a thorn bush between his property and yours? When I bought my current house, there was not only a thorn bush with spikes the length of my finger and the thickness of kebab skewers, but also a chain-link fence and a cedar hedge to triple the security. An Israeli commando force would have been intimidated by this barrier. Was Mr. Rombeau, the former owner, a follower of Frost’s fellow farmer, and believed, “Good fences made good neighbours?
I have heard many people quote the line from Robert Frost’s poem, The Mending Mall: “Good fences make good neighbors” as if this is Frost himself pronouncing his thesis. It is not his thesis. From his opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and through the entire poem Frost tries to convince his neighbour they do not need a wall, they have nothing to keep out or in, nothing disruptive that crosses one from the other. In Frosts’s words, Making the point indelibly clear with his wonderful personification of apple trees eating pine cones:
“There where it is we do not need a wall: / He is all pine and I am apple orchard. / My apple trees will never get across, my / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.”
To be sure, as Frost implies, there are situations where fences or walls are needed. Some to keep people in, some to keep people out. Some to keep animals in, some to keep animals out.
But these are the exceptions, not the rule. Fences can prevent us from even meeting let alone getting to know and appreciate our neighbours. Frost was not able to persuade his neighbour that they did not need a wall. His neighbour persists:
“He will not go behind his father’s saying… Good fences make good neighbours.”
Frost may have been pulling our leg a little since he suggests a force of nature, his namesake Jack Frost, is “something that doesn’t love a wall”:
“Something there is that does not love a wall / That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it / And spills the upper boulders in the sun; / And makes a gap that even two can pass abreast.
However, it is not just winter’s frost that does not love a wall. The naked ape, in this case, hunters, consider them a mere obstruction to be pushed out of the way. Frost continues: “The work of hunters is another thing:…./ Where they have left not one stone on a stone, / But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, / to please the yelping dogs.
Frost may not have initially intended the poem to be as profound as it clearly is. But poems and stories alike are often profound beyond their author’s expectations. However, one cannot doubt the broader and darker meaning as we read the closing lines in the poem. He clearly suggest his neighbour is rooted more in the Palaeolithic age than even the Neolithic age let alone the early 20th century.
“Bringing a stone he grasped firmly by the top / In each hand, by an old-stone savage armed. / He moves in darkness as it seems to me, / Not of woods only and shades of trees, / He will not go behind his father’s saying, / And he likes having thought it so well / He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’.”
One cannot help but think that Frost would have rejoiced On Nov. 9, 1989, when that infamous wall was demolished. Good neighbours tore down the Berlin Wall, and good neighbours united with the promise of a better world.
What kinds of needless walls do we build between ourselves and our neighbours? In a word, walls are built on prejudice: prejudging those who are of different colour, creed or culture; prejudging those of a different age, of a different social class or a different language, a different sexual orientation. If Any of these are walls in your life, perhaps you should consider tearing them down. By building walls, barriers or fences, we run the risk of not meeting what might turn out to be the most inspiring and interesting people we could ever encounter.
Good fences don’t make good neighbours. They can prevent us from meeting and perhaps getting to know some of the most fascinating and thoughtful people you might ever encounter.