For the Love of Walls

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” begins Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall. It is a line that has come to mind several times over the past few years as walls and fences and the like have become a popular discussion on news programs and in social media, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Robert Frost has always been one of my favorite poets. He embodies the duality of writing I love so well. He gives what appears to be an easily accessible poem custom made for motivational posters and the like. It is easy to imagine someone chopping out the, “Good fences make good neighbors,” line from Mending Wall and completely miscasting the poem as being about the beneficial nature of walls. Ignoring lines such as, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
/ What I was walling in or walling out,” or “There where it is we do not need the wall,” or the narrators description of his neighbor as, “An old stone savage armed,” and that he, “Moves in darkness,” and not the naturally occurring kind. The poem ends telling us that the neighbor will not move past his father’s saying and repeats the line, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The narrator is not a fan of the idea of good fences making good neighbors. This is clear from earlier in the poem when he describes the process of fixing the wall. First he finds it useless as his apple trees will never venture beyond the fence to eat his neighbor’s pine cones and it is metaphorically mentions with the lines, ” 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.” It is unclear whether this is the only time of the year the narrator speaks with his neighbor but it is clear that on this day they meet to set the wall between them once again and that as they do it the wall stands between them. The wall is both a physical and emotional barrier for the narrator and his neighbor.

The mending of the wall itself is neither practical or durable. This is an old stone wall held together by nothing but wishes and forgetfulness. It is mentioned early in the poem the hunters that use the land and how they and their dogs knock over the stones throughout the year. On all other days the wall is ignored but one Spring day the neighbors meet to reset the stones and do so by placing them and saying a silent wish that they stay until backs are turned. Those are not the actions of people setting a wall to permanently stand and keep out or in anything much at all. Those are the actions of people going through the motions. Which is how we do with many traditions.

Now imagine if you will for me the rolling countryside of New England. Is there perhaps an old stone wall there? It is the traditional thing to place in a New England countryside. That is one of the many points of Mending Wall. Our traditions turn us into, “Old stone savages,” that, “Moves in darkness,” and, “will not go beyond [our] father’s saying[s].” This is how we end up stuck in the past unable to move towards a future. We view wall as necessary and beneficial things. we repeat old sayings and traditions without applying any critical thinking ourselves, and like the narrator even if we have thought through our traditions and find them useless we still once a year call up the neighbor to mend a wall we neither need or want.

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