Beyond the Lines: “Mending Wall”—Robert Frost and the Good Neighbor Poetry
“Mending Wall” is a nice poem that tells a fun little story, about someone, his neighbor and a wall. Frost takes the old saying, which you might have heard, that “good fences make good neighbors,” and he plays with it. He plays with it in a poetic way, asking whether good fences make good neighbors or if good neighbors make good fences. Might the same be asked regarding today’s world problems? Should we build good fences, or should we be good neighbors? Let’s follow Frost as he plays with this old saying and see where it takes us.
Frost opens the poem with the following lines:
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.
Frost starts the poem with “Something there is.” Why didn’t he just say, “there is something.” That’s how we’d say it, right? Maybe it sounds more poetic this way, to say “something there is.” Maybe it’s because he wanted that first word of the poem to be “something,” to say that the poem is about this vague, uncertain word “something.”
Like when there’s just something about it, but I can’t quite put my finger on it; like when something is right on the tip of my tongue but I just can’t find the words to say it; or like when I just somehow have this feeling about something. We all have that feeling at times and I find that as I get older, I have it a lot more often. But what is this “something” that doesn’t love a wall? Hopefully, we’ll find out later in the poem.
It seems, at first glance, that it’s something that may be natural or may not be (we’re not quite sure yet) but it’s in the winter when the ground is frozen, and somehow this something causes the frozen ground under the wall to somehow move and make the stones on the top of the wall fall over. But they fall over when it’s sunny out, so maybe the frozen ground needs to meet the sunny sky for something to happen, like two different things happening at one time?
Furthermore, the falling stones make a gap in the wall that’s wide enough not for just one person, but two people. Whatever this something is that doesn’t love a wall, it does like the idea of two people being able to come together to pass through the wall.
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.
There may be a logical explanation for all this. Besides our thinking that it’s an unknown something, there may be another something causing the stones to fall—a “human” cause—say, some hunters maybe. It was quite common for people to hunt for food or for clothing, or even just for sport. So, it may not be a mysterious “something,” but an easily explained something.
It could be assumed to be a logical cause because the hunters aren’t causing a gap in the wall, like something that’s done randomly, by chance or happenstance, but done deliberately and systematically to create a gap, such that not one stone is left in the way. That would mean not only a simple alteration but a complete change in the stones occurred. So, it could be assumed that hunters were the cause and, therefore, it was done for a reason i.e. the “something” was necessary.
Assuming they’re hunting rabbits, maybe rabbits are hiding in a part of the wall; maybe they removed the stones to get rid of the rabbits’ hiding place; or maybe the rabbits escaped over the wall, and the dogs are howling in frustration because they can’t follow them; maybe they removed the stones so the dogs could run after the rabbits. Maybe that’s the reason?
The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
But the gaps in the wall that we’re talking about are those empty gaps caused by an unknown “something.” We would have most likely seen or heard the hunters and dogs, but no one sees or hears these gaps being made—and no one knows why—until in the spring we go around to check our wall and we find that something’s changed.
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.
Having found these mysterious gaps in our wall, we don’t try to keep it secret, but go and tell our neighbor, who lives over the hill, and see if maybe he noticed them too. And we agree to meet at a certain time and place, where we can go and look over the wall together and perhaps figure out what that mysterious “something” is. But also, we’re mending the wall so that we can reset our wall, maybe reset our boundaries.
And with the wall between us, we each stay on our own side of the wall, so that each of us can see the gaps and the stones from our own side, from our own point of view, and also to hear about the gaps and the stones from the other side, from our neighbor’s point of view. And we’re each responsible for the stones that fall on our side, so that this way, together, maybe we can mend our wall.
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!’
Each stone is so different (large or small, light or heavy, rough or smooth) and each is so different to set down, that it seems that it must be something else, something not practical, that makes the stones fit back together again and keeps this old wall in place—and we hope and pray that they stay put, at least until we’re done mending it.
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
But is all the hard work and roughing our fingers worth the effort? Unless there’s a reason for all this work, it would seem like it’s just a game. And the way that we each keep on our own side of the wall suggests a game is being played, with each of us on different sides. Maybe it's just all a game.
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.’
Because, after all this work, we start to think to ourselves: “do we even need the wall?” Our two fields are totally different anyway. One field isn’t going to get up and walk over to the other field because they’re different fields with different purposes. There should be very little chance of conflict. You’d think that if there’s no use for it, then why would we need the wall? It seems there’s still this uneasiness, this contradiction that just doesn’t make sense, and we say, you know there’s no real need for this wall, don’t you? But, “he only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Alas, we have this wall because it’s something that’s always been there, and we mend it because it’s something that’s always been done, and it’s something that we’ve always been told we have to do, and we just assume that somehow, it’ll make us into good neighbors. I guess like Isaac Newton’s invisible force, or like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, it just happens that way, you know, that’s just the way it is, for some reason.
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.
Here, we didn’t say that spring brings out the mischief in me, or that spring causes the mischief in me, but we say that spring IS the mischief in me. Just like when nature grows again in the spring, then maybe new wonders grow in us, because it’s natural in us, too. Maybe when we find these mysterious gaps in the spring, that’s when we’re being mischievous, that’s when we want to play—earlier didn’t we hint that maybe this is all just a game?
Maybe this mischief in us could be that poetic idea of play—playing to discover new wonders, and playing with others, as a way to pass on new wonders to others, to get them to think like us— “to put a notion in his head.” And so we continue the dialogue, asking why it just happens that way, and why it somehow makes good neighbors? If the original reason for it (where there are cows) isn’t necessary anymore, then what is the reason for it now?
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.
Before we start, we’d want to know if the wall is meant to keep something in or is it meant to keep something out. What's the intention? What exactly are we walling in and walling out? Would others find the wall useful, or would they find it harmful? Don’t we have to include others in making our decision to build 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.
Here’s that first sentence of the poem again, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” but this time we’ve added “that wants it down.” In our little dialogue, where we’re trying to figure out what could be the something—the purpose or the necessity for wanting the wall, we’re still looking for that something that doesn’t want the wall—this desire or yearning that wants that wall down. And this something, this notion, doesn’t agree with the other something, the other reason for building the wall.
But “Elves”!!! What do we mean by “Elves”? If no logical explanation can be found for the gaps made in the wall, maybe something is trying to give us a sign that the wall should come down, and so, to give this something a name maybe we could call it elves. Was it elves that were the unheard and unseen mysterious something that doesn’t love a wall? Did they topple the stones from the top of our wall? Maybe. But then we say that it’s not exactly elves.
It seems like a sign from something, but we haven’t yet figured out what the something is? But we didn’t say to our neighbor that it was elves because maybe we were hesitant to say so and maybe we were hoping that our neighbor would come up with the same idea that this was some sort of sign. Maybe we needed to sit down and think about why we have this wall?
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.
An “old-stone savage” makes us think of someone from the dark ages, or like someone that doesn’t want or doesn’t know how to change. And we’re holding the stone firmly as if this stone is our defense against any change, and maybe as if there’s something that we don’t want to let go of. And we’re in the darkness. Maybe because there’s no light to see by, we’re moving around in the dark, moving around from our memory of how things are. But that darkness we say isn’t a darkness from the outside, like being in a dark wood or being in the shade, so it must be a kind of darkness that’s inside of us, and so we just wander around in this darkness, that’s hiding something from us to see.
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.’
Maybe it’s a fear of something that keeps us wandering around in the dark and that keeps us from wondering why, a fear of questioning what we were taught, even if something is showing us a sign that something’s not quite right. It’s like doing something because of blind faith, where we grab a hold of that old saying and just repeat it again and again from memory, as if it’s all so self-explanatory, as if we don’t have to worry about trying to prove it, about trying to prove if there’s any truth in it or not. Ahhh, maybe that’s it—about proving whether it’s true. Maybe our fear of something is a fear of finding the truth.
It seems that we have two different views of the truth—the one that we rely on because we don’t know a better reason, (so we use blind faith, which may be right or it may be wrong, but we’re not going to try to prove it) and the other one because we have this uneasiness, like this sign from the elves, that there’s something not right, and we need to find out if there’s any truth in that something.
And here our poem ends with the last line when “he says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” So, we’re back to square one. And we haven’t answered that question, why something there is that doesn’t love a wall? But I don’t think that the dialogue ends here. We were only shown a small glimpse of the whole dialogue, but a glimpse that showed us the thinking that’s going on. How would the dialogue have continued, we wonder.
We could read the whole poem again, and then ask ourselves again, “do good fences make good neighbors?”
After all, the title of the poem is “Mending Wall”—a title that at first seemed somewhat curious. Frost didn’t title the poem “Good Fences,” or “Good Neighbors.” No. He called it “Mending Wall,” and that should remind us of another old saying about “mending our fences,” that means to better our relationship with our neighbors, to become a better neighbor. So, now for us to answer the question whether good fences make good neighbors, or whether good neighbors make good fences, it doesn’t matter. Whether there is a wall or not, it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether we mend our fences, whether we’re being good neighbors. Maybe the old saying should be “mending fences make good neighbors”?
However, weren’t we told that walls are built to keep out the barbarians—the criminals, the thieves and the smugglers? We might ask, why are there these “so-called” barbarians in the first place—are they trying to invade the garden from the jungle? If we keep our neighbors exploited, backward, under-developed and poor, isn’t that the real cause of their invasion? And who is it that would mend that wall—would it be the exploiting neighbor, or would it be the good neighbor? If we acted as a good neighbor, the wall could be well mended, or maybe we wouldn’t even need a wall. And how much work is being dedicated to thinking about and building these walls, as opposed to, say, something else?
This historical fight over this idea of being a good neighbor is part of the fundamental fight for independence in American history, and a part of the fight to find the truth.
Let’s read an excerpt from President James Monroe’s State of the Union Address to Congress, December 1823:
“… the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers ... that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”
The Monroe Doctrine, as developed by John Quincy Adams, was in response to the new republics of South America declaring their independence from Spain. To deny them recognition would be to reject the republican principle that had established the United States. But America also had to follow President George Washington’s policy of neutrality, regarding the internal affairs of European countries.
The United States would continue to be “tranquil but deeply attentive spectators” of any war between these new republics of southern America and Spain, that means non-interference. But any attempts by other European powers to seize or to control these former Spanish colonies would be viewed as being “unfriendly” to the United States. This was a principle of the Non-Colonization of the Americas. It was kind of like building a non-colonization wall—between Europe and the American continents.
But the United States wasn’t strong enough to enforce this principle, and they weren’t strong enough to mend this non-colonization wall, until after the Civil War. When Mexico suspended the payment of its foreign debts, a French invasion installed Maximilian Hapsburg as the new Emperor of Mexico, but the United States intervened to help force the French to leave, that allowed the Mexicans to remove the monarchy and to restore their republic.
But the Monroe Doctrine’s wall of neutrality and non-interference changed with the Anglo-American alliance of President Theodore Roosevelt and what came to be called the Roosevelt Corollary.
Let’s read an excerpt from Teddy Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address, December 1904:
“… Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”
The Monroe Doctrine forbade European colonization in the Americas, but did it forbid American colonization? This perversion of the Monroe Doctrine became the excuse to militarily intervene into other American countries if they were unable or unwilling to pay their international debts. Under Teddy Roosevelt, the United States built a neo-colonial wall around the Americas so that they could become the policeman of the countries inside the wall.
With the Good Neighbor policy of President Franklin Roosevelt, the United States returned once again to that principle of neutrality and non-interference in the internal affairs of another country.
Let’s read an excerpt from FRD’s March 1933 Inaugural Address:
“In the field of world policy, I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor – the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others – the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.”
This was a policy that FDR wanted to use as the basis for the United Nations and as the basis for a New Deal for the rest of the world. But FDR’s non-colonial policy was reversed in 1999, when the United States adopted the Blair Doctrine, and returned to an expanded version of the Teddy Roosevelt Corollary, that is called the Responsibility to Protect, the R2P corollary—that provides an excuse for that re-formed Anglo-American alliance of Teddy Roosevelt, to militarily intervene in the internal affairs of another country, anywhere in the world!
Let’s now read an excerpt from the recent Riyadh agreement between the GCC and the People's Republic of China (article #10 was specifically about Iran, but it could apply to any country):
“10. The two sides stressed the need for relations between the GCC states and Iran to be based on following the principle of good neighbourliness and non-interference in internal affairs, respect for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, and resolving disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and international law, and not resorting to the use of force or threatening to use it, and maintaining regional and international security and stability.”
In contrast to that R2P corollary, we see today an emerging multi-polar world of a new good neighbor movement. President Xi recently travelled to Saudi Arabia and as a result of his meetings with the Gulf Cooperation Council, the People’s Republic of China and all of the Persian Gulf monarchies agreed on how they will mend their walls, or actually on how they will build bridges with other countries. And it’s based on the idea of being good neighbors. Now, where did that come from, I wonder? Maybe the elves put it in there.
How does a poem that started out talking about mending a wall, end up getting us to the question of international relations, the Middle East and China's New Silk Road? Maybe this is only some poem about some wall, and I just spun this whole tale from my imagination. Maybe this poem made you spin a whole different tale in your imagination. Perhaps there are countless other tales yet to be spun in other imaginations about this poem, “Mending Wall.”
Maybe with the help of some elves, we might also become good hunters, but not like those rabbit hunters—but hunters for the truth, and we can learn how to get past our walls so that we can follow the truth, and also like hunters, look for a sign—a sign that something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
I think that’s what Robert Frost was trying to do, to open the doors of our imagination just a little bit wider, and to get us to see something in ourselves, that something in our creativity, that something that yearns for the truth. Because that something is how we solve problems, and that something is how we become good neighbors.
Gerald Therrien resides in Toronto, Canada, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Rising Tide Foundation. He is a retired school janitor, an amateur historian, and wishes he could be a poet when he grows up.