On reading a poem by Robert Frost
| The American poet Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors”.
Now if you are like me, you would think that Frost was espousing the building of fences. That’s what I always thought. I mean, who hasn’t had a neighbor that they couldn’t get along with? But that wasn’t his message at all.
It was in a poem called Mending Wall. Frost wrote the poem in the first person, and so we can picture him as the actual landowner. In the spring each year in New England, he and his neighbor would meet along each side of a stone wall that separates their properties. The stones have fallen down during the winter, either from the weather or from hunters and so they walk along the wall and pile the loose stones back on top to reconstruct the boundary.
And Frost questions the need for this wall. He observes that there are pine trees on one side and apple trees on the other, and surely they will not cross over. He also mentions that there are no cows to wall in. His neighbor simply says. “Good fences make good neighbors.” But Frost persists. He says, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out”. He thoughtfully remarks, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down”. (That’s poet-talk meaning there’s just something wrong with this.) His neighbor stubbornly insists, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Yeah, I had to look it up and read it again since it’s been a long time since high school. I probably didn’t put a lot of thought into the poem back then. Hell, it doesn’t even rhyme. But it does tell a story, and I do like stories.
Frost tells his story in such a way that you can see these two neighbors as they walk along and restore the rocks to the wall. It is obvious to the reader that although they are neighbors, they are not friends. In fact, they seem to have nothing in common except for that attachment by land and the common boundary. There is no dispute or argument; there is simply a difference of attitude. The writer is open-minded and thoughtful, while the neighbor is merely following rote practices. There was a wall there and it needs to be repaired. There is no need to discuss it, no reason to question it. It’s just what needs to be done.
So we’re really not just talking about stone walls and physical fences that separate us. We’re talking about philosophical differences. We’re talking about how we interact with our fellow beings. We’re looking at the past and the present and the future. How things are and what has changed. What should change?
I have to think about the progress we have made in our society in my lifetime. The Civil Rights movement is a good example. Yes, there is still a lot of room for improvement, but we elected a black man to be president. Twice! That’s mind-boggling. And gay rights. We now allow same-sex couples to marry, openly and legally. Who saw that coming just a decade or two ago? Equality for women in the workplace is still being fought, but there have been significant advancements.
These and many other accomplishments have only been made by people willing to change the status-quo. Willing to ask why we need the fence. Willing to tear it down. Not to blindly build it back up because that is what we always did.
A very thoughtful guy was Robert Frost. But on a personal note, I do have a neighbor that irritates the hell out of me. I’m thinking of a big fence. Or no, maybe a stone wall. A big stone wall. All the way across our property line. Damn, I’ve got to think about this. I wonder if I can figure out a way for him to pay for it.