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Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’ could help mend fences over Trump’s wall

By MILTON REIGELMAN

Guest columnist

When Robert Frost was 87 In January 1961, President-elect John F. Kennedy selected him to be part of his inauguration, a new idea that three of JFK’s Democratic successors have continued, though none of his Republican successors have. On the current president’s inauguration day, many poets took part in “Writers Resist” activities as a protest. 

It’s a shame that our presidency and poetry are now so far apart since, as Frost famously said, poetry can “provide a momentary stay against confusion.” We have a lot of political confusion these days. As the confusing government shutdown over a wall with Mexico continues, perhaps Frost’s much-anthologized and quoted poem “Mending Wall” can provide us some clarification — and maybe a little relief from the political confusion.   

Though the New England stone wall in Frost’s poem is physical, there are of course metaphorical possibilities. During Frost’s 1962 visit to the Soviet Union, some offended Russians thought he’d written the poem specifically to criticize their wall, built to keep East Berliners from escaping to the West. Not likely, since Frost had written it in 1913 in England, after he’d failed to make a living writing poetry and farming in New Hampshire.    

In the poem, Frost’s folksy, colloquial speaker muses about the times he and his neighbor meet to repair the damage to the wall separating their two properties after winter’s cold has frozen the ground, spilling the rounded boulders and creating gaps wide enough for two people to walk through. 

The poem divides almost exactly into halves that reflect the speaker’s two different impulses and stances. Until line 23, the annual spring mending-time with his neighbor is for him “just another kind of outdoor game, / played one on a side.” (lines 21-22) Each year he takes the initiative to let his neighbor beyond the hill know when it’s time because he enjoys the friendly activity, a game that includes casting spells together to make the stones balance: “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!” (18) 

His attitude and voice change dramatically in the poem’s second half, however, when the neighbors get to a place where “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.” (23-26) His winsome, endearing tone suddenly becomes more aggressive. He imagines his neighbor as an uncompromising, conservative “old-stone savage” who “moves in darkness” and won’t “go behind his father’s saying”: “’Good fences make good neighbors.’” (27, 45)

Wouldn’t it be marvelous if both the president and the speaker of the house,  both the Republicans and Democrats, would take another look at “Mending Wall” and realize three things? 

First — In the poem there are some places along their mutual border where a wall is needed. The poem’s speaker and his more taciturn neighbor work together amiably as partners to mend sections.

But there are cowless places where a wall is basically pointless, unnecessary. When recalling those spots, the speaker becomes more aggressive, self-righteous, even a little sardonic, telling us that before he’d build a wall, he’d “ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense.” (32-35)

Second — Most readers side with the poem’s speaker, as Sen. Dick Durbin did recently on television.  But on closer reading, it’s clear that Frost thinks the poem’s speaker and his neighbor are as balanced, morally, as the stones they together cast spells on. Each twice retreats into the refuge of his own mantra: either “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (1, 35) or “Good fences make good neighbors.” (27, 45)

To counterbalance the natural, self-serving bias of the guy telling the story, Frost highlights the neighbor’s aphorism by placing it in the important last line of the poem. The fact is that while mending a wall, neither can claim the high ground. 

3. Thoughts alone don’t exacerbate things. But once thoughts are put into words (or tweets), they become like the sticks-and-stones of the parable: they can and do bruise and hurt. The divisive things the poem’s speaker thinks remain conditional: He could but does not put a notion in his neighbor’s head (29); he could but does not taunt the neighbor with “Elves.” (36) He has enough common sense not to let words foul the air, lessening the possibility of partnership.     

When “Mending Wall” was first published in 1915, Frost wrote that it continued the working-together theme in his earlier poem, “Tufted Flower.” Frost biographer Jay Parini concluded that Frost himself was a difficult, often intractable person. No matter: Frost told the poet William Meredith that he put all his energy into getting his poems right, which he certainly did. 

So to our political leaders I say, “Read some poetry, damnit!”

Mending Wall

By 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 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.’

Milton Reigelman is professor of English emeritus at Centre College in Danville.