by Jason Peters
[Ed. Note: The full poem appears at the end of the essay. You are encouraged to read it first, remembering that poetry is meant to be read out loud.]
We do violence to a work of art by using it for our own ends, especially for our own ideological or political ends, which are time-bound and probably transient at best. But we also do it an injustice if we ignore the clear ends it puts on offer, which for all we know might be enduring. Both are failures, each in its way, to read well. Both are failures of criticism.
An example of the first failure, the violence done to a work, would be a course on Shakespeare’s plays that proposes as its main objective to look only at his “marginalized” characters for the purpose of understanding current “social-justice” issues and encouraging empathy. (I have seen a poster advertising such a course.)
An example of the second failure, the injustice done to a work by ignoring what is plainly before us, might be illustrated by examining Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” which is a poem ready to address, mostly by muted implication, the problem of how to live well in a given place. Not to notice this would be a failure to read well; it too would be a failure of criticism.
Does the poem’s addressing this problem make “Mending Wall” a political poem? In an older sense of the epithet “political” certainly; in our current sense—as a cudgel for bludgeoning one’s opponents across the aisle—certainly not.
The setting of the poem, not surprisingly, is rural. There is a stone wall dividing two farms. The wall serves no practical purpose. There are no cows anywhere for the wall to keep in one pasture and out of another, and there’s no chance of the pine trees on one side mixing with the apple trees on the other. And since “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” as the speaker tells us twice, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the wall not to come down and stay down. It makes no difference whether hunters knock the stones over in their attempt to get every last rabbit or the ground’s heaving in the cold winter should topple it: something doesn’t love it. Something wants it down.
And yet once a year two neighbors meet, as the speaker says, to “set the wall between us once again.” There’s an obvious irony in two men meeting to put something between them, but they meet nevertheless. Some boulders look like “loaves” and some like “balls”—for Frost always gets the details right—and there’s a kind of game the neighbors play in making the rocks stay, a game that includes pronouncing a “spell to make them balance.”
Already, then, the poem has taken one of two important turns: in the first turn work has become a kind of play, which is to say there is pleasure to be had from it, even from this utterly unnecessary task that, as we know already, sets a wall between two neighbors who have no need of such a divide. There is also pleasure in work that puts things to rights. Anyone with fences knows that clean fence lines are much more pleasant to look at than slovenly ones. They provide greater aesthetic pleasure.
A second turn is coming. It has mainly to do with a shift in the speaker’s attitude. It is not easy to say what this attitude is precisely, mainly because the poem itself is in the process of leaving the matter-of-fact world in order to enter a dark mystery. But let us say that the speaker’s initial sense of “superiority” (for lack of a better word) gives way to an implied deference to his neighbor and a sense of intrigue concerning him. We’ve seen the speaker use irony; we’ve seen him make a pun (he would like to know, putting up a wall, to whom he is likely to give offense). Spring is the “mischief” in him, and he’d like to “put a notion” in his neighbor’s head—that elves are to blame for the wall’s current state of disrepair. In fine, he toys with his neighbor, whom he affectionately takes for a bit of a rube. He wonders in a last act of condescension (again, for lack of a better word) whether his neighbor is clever enough to say it “for himself.”
But “the old stone savage armed” with rocks in both hands only repeats his father’s saying, which he feels no need to “go behind” or explain or make greater sense of, so obvious and plain is its truth: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Here the speaker somewhat unexpectedly surrenders whatever smugness he has brought to the task, for now he is struck, arrested, brought unawares into a bit of local wisdom that also feels like ancient wisdom: the stone savage “moves in darkness”—a darkness “not of woods only and the shade of trees” but of a truth that up until this moment has never occurred to the speaker. The darkness the neighbor moves in suggests a knowledge that belongs to blood and nerve and muscle and to a mode of being in the world that his father’s saying is merely a gateway into.
And note the neighbor’s delight in his own wisdom: he “likes having thought of it so well” that he repeats the formula: “Good fences make good neighbors.” This accords with Frost’s description of a poem as something that begins in delight and ends in wisdom.
But we ourselves have been brought to a position that asks us to consider one very important formal element of the poem, in fact a fusion of form and content. Scan the last phrase—“good fences make good neighbors,” which, used twice, strikes a balance with the other line that is used twice (“something there is that doesn’t love a wall”)—and you get this: on either side of the word “make” there are three syllables, the second three a mirror of the first: both sets of three consist of two accented syllables followed by an unaccented syllable:
GOOD FENces ‖ make ‖ GOOD NEIGHbors.
This symmetry draws attention to the divider between the two pairs of three. That divider is “make,” a word that recalls if not recapitulates the remaking of a stone wall, a wall that keeps neither cows nor trees from wandering but turns out to be entirely necessary nonetheless, for it makes good neighbors. In this sense it is very much like poetry itself, which is a kind of making that produces something at once useless and necessary.
The artful making, the artful remaking, of the wall, ironically a divider, brings the neighbors together. It brings them together in good work that ends in a thing well-made. Work, the care of their neighborhood, the neighbors’ concern for its beauty, is at once the reason for and the cause and occasion of neighborliness. Not policy, not legislation, but the common work of maintaining a place, even work of no discernible utilitarian value—this is what makes for good neighbors. This is public-spiritedness at the most local level, perhaps at the lowest level, the neglect of which may well be the beginning of all large-scale neglect. Does the poem imply this? I think it does.
By poem’s end the wall, we assume, either is or will be mended. But we must be clear about what is before us: the speaker and his neighbor have been brought together not by the mended wall but by the wall that itself mends—by the mending wall of the poem’s title. The poem is not about the wall only; it is about the wall and the work that keeps the wall in repair, which in turn preserves neighborliness, without which there can be no ordered civic life. It is not irrelevant to us, and in the end it is not irrelevant to the speaker, that the word “neighbor” (nigh + boor) means the person who is at hand, even if he is a lout or an oaf or an “old-stone savage.” Shared labor in a place—labor built to scale—is civilizing. It makes citizens.
“Mending Wall” is political inasmuch as it concerns the political animal, but it is not a cudgel to bludgeon globalists with, even though I think you’d be hard-pressed to get a globalist interested in the poem. And I say that only to say this: we may legitimately wonder what else doesn’t love a wall besides hunters and cold heaving ground. What else “makes gaps even two can pass abreast”? What inimical forces are good neighbors really up against? I think Frost knew.
This poem really is a flash of brilliance. To use one of Frost’s best definitions of a poem, it is a “momentary stay against confusion.” Its dark mystery is a kind of light shining on real human affairs in a real place suited to real men. Nowhere in it do we find the cosmopolitan’s requisite contempt for nature and those who live in close proximity to it. That too is clearly put on offer.
The unintended consequence of the Shakespeare course will be either to chase students away from Shakespearian drama or else to make them impoverished readers of it. Fictive characters do, of course, assist us in our understanding of the human predicament. Or they can. But the important formal questions that no true critic may legitimately neglect will go unanswered in such a course for the simple reason that they will go unasked. Not to be interested in form is not to be interested in art, which of all human endeavors must take up formal causes. I should add that in my experience such a course signals a failure on the part of the teacher to understand his or her object of study and to default on the traditional and ordinary demands of disciplinary duty. In plain speaking, it is a failure of teachers to do their jobs. If you are a teacher of literature but cannot say anything about literature as an object of aesthetic contemplation, then chances are you are not a teacher of literature but the PR department for your own pet and petit issues. And in all likelihood you are beholden to the news cycle, which is a rare but deadly kind of servility.
Frost’s “Mending Wall,” by contrast, far from being enslaved to the tyranny of the present, is a reminder to be suspicious of it.
Mending Wall, 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 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 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 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 offense.
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.’
- Is it important to distinguish between a work of art’s artistic value and its social or political value? Which is more important?
- Can citizenship happen without neighborliness?
- Think about the imagery in the poem: why does Frost use those specific images?