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Beyond the Lines : ‘Mending Wall’ – Robert Frost and the Good Neighbor Poetry

by Gerald Therrien

[The following is a transcript of the above lecture as part of the RTF symposium “The Role of Art in Shaping a Sovereign Citizenry.]

Mending Wall is a nice poem that also tells a fun little story, about someone, about his neighbor and about a wall. Frost takes this old saying, that you might have heard, that good fences make good neighbors and he plays with it. He plays with it in a poetic way to ask if good fences make good neighbors or if good neighbors make good fences. And is it the same with today’s world problems? Should we build good fences, or should we be good neighbors? Let’s follow Frost through his poem, while he’s playing with this old saying, and see if it causes something in us to go wander off and to wonder about something.

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.

First off, Frost starts the poem with ‘Something there is’. Now, why didn’t he just say, ‘there is something’. That’s how we’d say it, right? Well, maybe it sounds more poetic this way, to say ‘something there is’. Or maybe it’s because he wanted that first word of the poem to be ‘something’, as a way 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 it’s something that’s 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. You know what I mean, 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 makes the frozen ground under the wall to somehow move and to make the stones on the top of the wall to fall over. But they fall over when it’s sunny out, so maybe it needs to be a frozen ground but a sunny sky to happen, like two different things happening at one time.

But these falling stones make a gap in the wall that’s wide enough for two people, that not just a single person can pass, but two people can pass. So, whatever this something is that doesn’t love a wall, it does like for two people to be able to come together to pass through the wall, so it’s a friendly something.

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 also be this other something that could cause the stones to fall, a ‘human’ cause – say, some hunters maybe. I think 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 maybe 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 cause a gap, such that not one stone is left in the way. That’s not something that’s a simple alteration but it’s a complete change in the stones. So, it could be assumed the cause is hunters because it was done for a reason, that the something was necessary.

And assuming they’re hunting rabbits, maybe the rabbits are hiding in a part of the wall, and 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, so maybe they removed the stones so the dogs could go run after the rabbits. Maybe that’s the reason. It seems logical enough, right?

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 that an unknown ‘something’ has caused. And most likely we’d have seen or heard the hunters and dogs, but these gaps, no one sees or hears 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 and keep it a 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 maybe try to 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 all this hard work, roughing our fingers, is it really worth all the effort? Because it would seem like it’s just a game unless there’s a reason for all this work. And the way that we each keep on our own side of the wall, it seems like the way that games are played, with each of us on different sides. Maybe it is just a game we’re playing.

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, because our two fields are totally different anyway. The one field isn’t going to get up and walk over to the other field for no good reason, because they’re different fields with different purposes. There should be very little chance of some conflict here. 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’.”

That’s saying that we just 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. So 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?

So maybe this mischief in us could be that poetic idea of play – playing to discover new wonders, and also 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 was the intention? And we should find out, would others find the wall useful, or would others 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 and that toppled the stones from the top of our wall? Maybe. But then we say that it’s not exactly elves.

I guess we think that it’s just a sign from something, but we still 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 it was elves and maybe we were hoping that our neighbor would come up with the same idea that this was some sort of sign, and that then we could say that 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 defence 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 woods 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 or not 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’.” And 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 part of the whole dialogue, but a glimpse that showed us the thinking that’s going on. But 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?

Well … you know the title of the poem is Mending Wall – it’s a title that at first seemed somewhat curious to me. 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 that old saying should be ‘mending fences make good neighbors’?

But 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 – 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.

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 Riyadh agreement between the GCC and the People’s Republic of China:

(in this article #10, it was specifically about Iran, which is very important, 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. I don’t know but it is a sign of something.

How could anyone find any fault with anything in that statement. If this is what China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the new silk road, is based upon, why wouldn’t any government in the world want to join and want to welcome it, if it’s all about mending walls and being good neighbors!

So, imagine for a minute, that President Xi of China comes to Washington D.C. and he knocks on the front door of the White House but no one answers (the porch lights are on but no one’s home, you know what I mean). And so President Xi leaves a note in the mailbox. Eventually someone finds it and they wonder ‘hey, who put this note in here, hmmm, maybe the elves did’. Anyway, they give it to the President and the President reads the note, and the note says ‘Good morning neighbor! I saw that there’s some holes in that wall in our neighborhood, and I think we should mend it.’ And with the note is a copy of this good neighbor policy.

It would be so easy for the President of the United States to simply say ‘well now, I think I’ve seen this before, this looks like that policy of President Franklin Roosevelt, his Good Neighbor Policy! Ok, let’s be good neighbors, and let’s mend our wall.’ So the question is, are we building walls, like this stupid Green New Wall, simply to stop the New Silk Road, or are we going to use the New Silk Road as something for mending walls?

How does a poem that started out talking about mending a wall, end up getting us to talk about the new silk road and the good neighbor policy? Maybe this is only some poem about some wall, and I just spun this whole tale from my imagination. But maybe this poem made you spin a whole different tale in your imagination. And maybe there’s countless tales that are yet to be spun in other imaginations about this poem, Mending Wall.

I think that’s what Robert Frost was trying to do, to open the door to 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.

And maybe with the help of some elves, we might also become good hunters, but not like those rabbit hunters – but like hunters for the truth, and we can learn how to get past our walls so that we can follow after the truth, and also like hunters looking for a sign – a sign that something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

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.


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