A mischevious spring meditation on Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”

An unmended wall on Unst, Shetland


You can hear a recorded podcast of the following piece by clicking this link


I begin this bonus episode [of the podcast] with Robert Frost’s (1874—1963) poem from 1914,

“Mending Wall”


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 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:  

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 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 neighbors.”


You can hear Robert Frost reading the poem at this link.

And here is a link to a short film of Leonard Nimoy reading the same poem.


—o0o—


In too many places today around the world you’ll find someone attempting to put up a border wall or fence. It’s neither a pretty nor encouraging sight and along with most people of liberal or progressive inclination, I’m inclined to look upon these constructs and immediately agree with Frost that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”.

But the danger is that in such unsettled times this feeling causes us to commit the sin of believing in binary opposites and to start seeing walls as simply either good or bad and becoming desirous of either only thoughtlessly and fearfully putting them up, or thoughtlessly and fearlessly only pulling them down. We need a better, more nuanced approach to walls than this painfully simplistic one.

We can begin helpfully to explore what this more nuanced approach might be like with the help of Frost’s poem in which he encourages us to think about the apparently counterintuitive idea that some walls might serve appropriately to connect rather than divide us.

Frost starts his reflections where many of us today would start, namely, with the aforementioned thought intuitively held by many people of liberal persuasion, that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”. 

But who or what is this “something”? 

Frost begins his poem by suggesting that, at the very least, it is some kind of natural, impersonal, non-moral process, in this case, the frozen-ground swelling under the wall which 

spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Indeed, looking across human history over many millennia, it seems certain that, eventually, every wall we will ever make will be brought down by nature simply doing what nature does. 

But we need to be aware that, having mentioned frozen ground, he might also be making a quiet pun because, as his poem obviously attests, there is something in him, a man called “Frost” remember, that doesn’t love a wall. Now, in suggesting this — if, indeed, he is suggesting this! — he may gently be reminding himself that, whether he likes it or not, as Mr Frost, his own actions are an example of nature doing what nature does as much as is the swelling action of the frozen, frosty ground. 

Whether or not this pun is being made, Frost quickly adds another “something” that doesn’t love a wall, and in this case it is something clearly human and, therefore, a “something” with an obvious ethical dimension:

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. 

Here, the toppling of the wall is caused, not by an impersonal, natural force but by people who have no regard at all for the wall’s purpose of keeping certain things apart. Instead, they, along with their dogs, have a completely different focus to that held by the up-swelling frozen ground or Mr Frost and his neighbour, namely, the rabbit. For those involved in the hunt the wall has simply got in their way and so down it must come. 

So, within the first few lines, we already have three “somethings” that do not love a wall and which, for various reasons, want to, or simply do, bring it down. We may presume there are other unmentioned “somethings” that do not love a wall and wish to bring it down but, however, and by whomsoever it happened, the wall is now full of gaps,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

At this point Frost begins to bring in to view a further important layer of complexity which seems to me to be central to the meaning of the whole poem — namely, the role of human tradition which, often silently and invisibly, is always shaping so much of our everyday life including, of course, the putting up and pulling down of walls. In the case of the relationship between Frost and his neighbour, at springtime, tradition insists that it is now mending-time. For Frost, mending the wall is simply what “one” does at this time of year and so, dutiful to tradition, he lets his “neighbor know beyond the hill”

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

The next few lines of the poem are spent telling us something about how this was done and some of his thoughts and feelings about the difficulties of the task:

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.

It’s a hard, tricky and skilled job (sometimes even seeming to require the use of a magic spell) but, for all that, Frost tells us he feels this is:

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.

Frost’s humorous observation here is, at one practical level, clearly right, the careful repair of this particular wall does seem to be wholly unnecessary. What does it matter that it is full of gaps? It would surely suffice to let the wall slowly tumble down and let the fallen stones act as a simple marker of the boundary line between their two properties. But, his neighbour won’t have that and he simply says to Frost, 

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

. . . and carries on mending. 

Frost’s initial internal and, therefore, private rejoinder is, he tells us, a mischievous one:

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 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. 

In this section, we can see that Frost firstly wonders whether it might be best to respond to his neighbour by raising the kind of rational questions which might, somehow, cause his neighbour to stop merely repeating his forefathers’ phase that “Good fences make good neighbors”, and properly to consider the question of “Why do fences or walls make good neighbours?” Such a method of rational questioning would, surely, help his neighbour to arrive at an “aha!” moment when he, along with frost, finally experiences that “something . . . that doesn’t love a wall, / That wants it down!” Then, at last, this traditional activity which is, after all, little more than an “outdoor game”, could, finally, come to an end.

But the fact that Frost doesn’t make this argument out loud suggests that he doesn’t think such a rational, evidence-based strategy would ever work with his neighbour. His neighbour, remember, is working fully and deeply out of tradition and this wall-mending they are engaging in is simply what “one” does at this time of year and so it doesn’t matter that his own land is all pines, and Frost’s is all orchard. In short, Frost’s rationalist, cow-related argument just won’t work, it’s wholly besides the point.     

This is, perhaps, why Frost then silently wonders whether a better strategy in getting his neighbour to stop the annual, and apparently pointless and futile mending of their wall, would be to invoke “Elves”. Given that his neighbour continues to respond and act simply out of tradition — which, remember, is always silently and invisibly shaping so much of our everyday living and thinking — perhaps blaming the wall’s state of disrepair upon traditional, mythical, mischievous, invisible beings like elves that love to bring down walls, might be much better at bringing his neighbour to the realisation that this wall can be allowed slowly to tumble down. His neighbour might not be persuaded by rational arguments about pines, orchards and cows but if he thought elves were involved he might suddenly say, “Ah, yeah, you’re right. Since the elves clearly want this wall down then I guess we’d better leave it alone.”

Perhaps, perhaps not but, at the very least Frost’s private thoughts about an ancient, traditional, mythic creature had, remember, whilst shifting ancient boulders causes Frost suddenly to see something very ancient in his neighbour:

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.

Frost suddenly sees before him a living, stone-age man moving, not simply in the dark of woods and the  shade of trees, but in the impenetrable, ancient dark of human tradition upon which the endless building and mending of this wall, and so many other things in our lives, is always-already founded.

We might be tempted to think that Frost is hereby suggesting to us that he is, by contrast, somehow fully in the light and free from tradition — not himself “an old-stone savage armed”. But let’s not forget it was Frost who let his “neighbor know beyond the hill” that it was spring mending time and that he, too, is grasping the self-same stone to fix this wall. Despite his critical and enquiring demeanour we are helped to see that at some deep, primal level, Frost is as implicated in tradition as much as is his neighbour. 

To be sure, Frost, unlike his neighbour, is prepared to go into the dark behind his forebear’s saying and question the meaning and efficacy of the wall but it is important to see that his questioning yields no simple answers, certainly nothing that could definitively prove or disprove his neighbour’s adage that “Good fences make good neighbors” or to prove or disprove the superiority of his own “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”.

And so the poem finishes, inconclusively, with Frost stating that his neighbour

. . . 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.”

We may presume that they continue until the job is done and, each year at spring mending time, that they convened once again, brought inexorably together by something that simultaneously keeps them, and their pine-cones and apples, apart. 

In his poem, Frost seems at the very least to be concerned to remind us that walls (whether of dry stone, language, culture, tradition, religion and philosophy) are always-already both joining and separating people and things and that there are no easy, wholly rational evidenced-based rules which govern which is to be which at which moments in time and in what places and contexts. Walls will always have complex explicit and implicit uses and roles, perhaps useless at certain obviously practical levels such as keeping pine-cones and apples apart, but highly useful at a symbolic, personal level such as keeping these two otherwise distant neighbours in some kind of minimal, respectful relationship. Walls can add respect to oneself and the other, or they can destroy the same. They can be causes of exclusion or opportunities for genuine welcome and hospitality. 

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, the Preacher once memorably said:

“Everything has a season, and a time for every matter under the heavens. . . . A time to fling stones and a time to gather stones in” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 5a trans. Robert Alter)

Discerning when each of those times is present is always a nuanced, case by case, ad hoc task. There are no easily learnt regular rules when it comes to the mending or destruction of walls because, when it comes down to it, it is like learning to conjugate the most irregular of verbs — every single instance plays out differently.

For Frost, in that spring over a century ago, the right answer was found in continuing with his neighbour to mend their simultaneously useless and useful wall even as he was forced to question everything about their activity.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall; good fences make good neighbors; 

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall; good fences make good neighbors;

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall; good fences make good neighbors;

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall; good fences make good neighbors.

[Fade out on this repetition.]

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