In this first post on the subject I wrote admiringly of Davids Frye’s book Walls. He argues convincingly that while walls are not always good all of the time their virtues have been unfairly passed over relative to their David Haskell-like pal Bridges, and that the old adage “love thy neighbor but don’t pull down your hedge” has a high degree of relevance in today’s world still.
However I also remarked that he was a little uncharitable to Robert Frost, who he described as “bland” and whose famous line from “Mending Fences” (“good fences make good neighbors”) was already a “trite cliche” when he wrote it in 1914. So I am here to defend Frost from Frye’s somewhat cavalier besmirching, and to take another look at the poem, considering whether it is as bland and trite as Frye says.
I come to Frost’s defense in part as a native New Englander. I may be of solid German-Swedish stock but growing up in New England in mid-century involved a high level of respect for the Yankee past, so much so that I was capable of a kind of multiple consciousness as regards ethnic identity.
Day to day I felt American, courtesy of the speed which my parent’s and grandparent’s generations were obliged to assimilate. Still there was enough of Northern Europe in the air that I felt German and Swedish on certain family occasions–smorgasbord at Christmas and sauerbraten on Sundays. But there was always an underlying Englishness under the surface too, especially in school, where progressive politics was decades away and pride in New England’s past was openly expressed. And so I defend Frost as a co-ethnic as well, as distasteful as that is in the modern era for a white male, and despite the fact that I am not really a Yankee at all.
For the record, Frost himself was not a native New Englander. He was born in San Francisco. Unlike me he really did come from Yankee stock, and after college and some wanderings made his home in northern New England.
But the part he played in American life as a crusty old Yankee was to some extent a role. He tried his hand at farming but he was no farmer. He was by inclination and training a poet. And so the tension between one identity and another, one more “real” and one aspirational, is evident in his life, as it has been in mine.
So I stick up for him, too, as a kindred spirit relative to the ambiguities of identity. That is on display in the poem, too, and one of the reasons I rise to defend it.
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 neighbour 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 out-door 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 neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? 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 neighbours.”
The first thing one notes in reading, or re-reading the poem is the famous phrase “good fences make good neighbors”. Frost’s companion utters the line twice, and that’s all he says.
The first time it is in response to Frost’s gentle inquiry about the reason for mending wall in the first place–surely Frost’s apple trees are not about to invade his companion’s pine forest.
The second time the companion utters it without a prompt. Frost has run through various arguments he might advance to contest his companion’s first utterance but he never gets around to voicing them. So the second time around the phrase comes out just because his companion “likes having thought of it so well.” His mind is fixed on the thought. He is satisfied that the thought gets the job done. And so there is no reason for debate or discussion.
But note that just as the poem’s most famous line closes the verse its second-most famous line opens it. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” But what would that thing be?
For one, nature, and the natural order, including human intention. The frozen ground swells and breaks the wall down, stone by stone. And then there are people, following their own natural inclinations. The hunter wishes to “please the yelping dogs” by having the rabbit out of hiding. One way or another the wall is found in spring with “gaps even two can pass abreast”.
“Spring is the mischief” in Frost. That is, the thawing instincts of his intellect might aim to undermine his neighbor’s frozen certitudes as spring undermines the stability of the wall. And so after his companion’s initial utterance of the phrase Frost toys with further arguments he can make. He seems to realize the effort to debate the point is futile (“I’d rather He said it for himself”) and he shifts his attention away from savoring his own opinion toward an understanding of who his companion actually is.
He realizes that just as conversation is a mysterious process so the nature and identity of our interlocutors can be something of a mystery, too. His companion becomes an “old-stone savage armed” who “moves in darkness.” His companion simply will not “go behind his father’s saying”.
Does Frost conclude, then, that his companion is truly “in darkness”, that his ritual incantation about fences and neighbors is irrational and vestigial? We don’t know. His companion shows a Burkean respect for tradition and custom as against Frost’s obvious tilt toward reason and logic. But you don’t hear Frost sticking up so clearly for where he knows his default sympathies lie. He may not be able to completely grasp his companion’s way of being, but he senses enough to spot a dilemma.
Yes, Frost’s apple trees and not going to invade his neighbor’s pines. But is it always best that we reason these things out? Is there not a place for saying habits should be respected, even if we cannot find a compelling reason to follow them? It may be enough that we collectively remember what walls are, what they do, and how to build and repair them. We think our thoughts as individuals but the thoughts we have in our individual brains may be explicable more in social terms, as having been bred to inculcate and protect social things.
As Daniel Kahneman might say, there’s a time for System One automatic thinking, relying on habit and instinct, and there’s a time for System Two thinking in which we attempt from time to time to overrule the part of our brain that most of the time is the master. The problem is that life does not come with cue cards letting us know when to make the switch from one mode of thinking or another. Mend the wall or let it fall? There is no ready answer.
So it seems to me that this poem does a fine job at expressing the thought that Frye set forth as the theme of his epilogue, and in a way of his entire book: “love thy neighbor but don’t pull down your hedge.” If the thought is good enough to serve as a frame for Frye’s book in 2019 I see no reason to find it inadequate as the central ambiguity in Frost’s 1914 poem. Things that are truly eternal are hard to characterize as trite. The dilemmas they pose command respect.