January 15th, 2018

On building walls

There are walls, and then there are walls.

Robert Frost wrote:

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 neighbour 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 neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? 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 neighbours.”

Originally, I had thought to offer just an excerpt from the poem. But then I decided to put the whole thing up there because—as so often is the case with Frost—there’s so much food for thought in it. The speaker in “Mending Wall” is someone who represents the view that walls might not be a good thing to have. His neighbor represents the more conservative view, in the old-timey—not necessarily political—sense of “traditionalist.”

The two lines in the poem that made me think of it recently are these: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out…” Indeed, that’s an important distinction that many people who are part of the “don’t love a wall” political contingent forget when it suits their purposes.

Now, I can’t say I always love a wall. But I’m New Englander enough to know that good fences ordinarily do make good neighbors—or, rather, they can help keep goodish neighbors from going bad.

Walls mark boundaries and help avoid disputes. Walls are also symbolic in terms of personal boundaries—in other words, “don’t get so close that I feel smothered by you; I require some privacy.” Neighbors are often so close physically that each can feel invaded by the other if they aren’t careful to respect personal boundaries as well as property ones.

Different areas of the country and the world have different standards and customs about this. In New England, we’re known for being a bit standoffish. That can be bad when you’re new in the neighborhood and expecting the welcome wagon. It can be good if you’re a bit reserved and like your privacy. But fences don’t keep people from being close if they want to be.

Which brings us, of course, to countries. The “walling in or walling out” distinction is all-important there, and often glossed over by the left. Berlin Wall, border wall with Mexico, Israel/Palestinian wall—all the same, all pernicious. The left would like you (or the US, or Israel) to be forced to have your boundaries overstepped, although at the same time they’re not above living in gated communities themselves.

The Berlin Wall was to keep people inside a country, not out. The purpose was to make the country itself—East Germany—a prison, and escape punishable by death. The purpose was to end liberty for its own citizens.

Building a border wall to keep people from another country out, on the other hand, is protective. One can argue with whether it’s necessary or not in any given case. But it is well within the rights of any country to build one, and it does not change the rights or restrict the liberty of its own citizens. The only thing it does is protect the country’s territory from people from an adjacent country who want to enter without permission of the host country. And for the most part, those people are also still free to visit that country and even to emigrate there if they follow the rules of the country they want to enter.

Seems pretty reasonable to me.

Such boundary walls are actually quite common around the world, as you can see, and there are myriad reasons for having them (scroll down at the link for the very long list). Is it only the US that’s not allowed to have a wall?

[NOTE: By the way, regarding whether an actual wall could be built along the entire border, I tackled that question in August of 2015.]

17 Responses to “On building walls”

  1. blert Says:

    Israel’s wall is working perfectly fine.

  2. Gary D. G. Says:

    What is the existential difference between a wall and a fence?

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    Gary D. G.:

    In Frostian (New England rural) terms, a wall is made of stone and it doesn’t rot, although the stones can fall (as in the poem). A fence is wood and can rot. But he uses the words interchangeably.

    As a metaphor, a wall sounds sturdier.

    By the way, Frost had something to say about fences, too, in another poem with a very different theme:

    ‘I can repeat the very words you were saying:
    “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
    Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”

  4. Dave Says:

    How do you keep a repeating criminal who has been deported multiple times from keep coming back to harm law abiding Americans other than building a wall? a Wall obviously won’t be very effective in keeping him out, obviously not as effective as down right executing him, but it is the most effective among all the legal solutions.

  5. Dave Says:

    We don’t have to build a wall, I have a pretty good solution, every illegal immigrant criminal caught and convicted will have his feet broken James Caan in Misery style before being deported, that way he will never be able to border jumping back again.

  6. Frog Says:

    There is actually a lot for me not to like in the Frost poem: the implicit superiority of the voice, the disdain for hunters unseen, tearing stone from stone to please their yelping dogs and get the poor poor bunny.
    “The gaps I mean,
    No one has seen them made or heard them made,
    But at spring mending-time we find them there.”

    No one has seen them or heard them made, huh?

    Not a word about frost heaves, which in bitter cold New England winter can displace a stone or two, physically actually move them, and make an entire unmortared wall section unstable and so fall apart.

    PS: Birch is a very soft wood, rots very easily, and no Yankee farmer worth his salt would build a fence of birch. Frost has that right.

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    Frog:

    I believe you may be confusing the narrator of the poem with Frost himself? I could be misinterpreting what you wrote, but that’s what I thought you were saying.

    The “I” voice in poetry is sometimes real, but often a poetic device. Frost is NOT a confessional poet. He’s a poet who often explores different point of view with different characters and voices.

    Here, Frost is contrasting two points of view, between a narrator and the narrator’s neighbor, and usually his poems are very complex and his own point of view is both complex and hidden in riddles and contradictions within the poem, if it’s revealed at all.

    Here’s some interesting commentary:

    Ironically, while the narrator seems to begrudge the annual repairing of the wall, Frost subtley points out that the narrator is actually more active than the neighbor. It is the narrator who selects the day for mending and informs his neighbor across the property. Moreover, the narrator himself walks along the wall at other points during the year in order to repair the damage that has been done by local hunters. Despite his skeptical attitude, it seems that the narrator is even more tied to the tradition of wall-mending than his neighbor. Perhaps his skeptical questions and quips can then be read as an attempt to justify his own behavior to himself. While he chooses to present himself as a modern man, far beyond old-fashioned traditions, the narrator is really no different from his neighbor: he too clings to the concept of property and division, of ownership and individuality.

    Another poem in which people often confuse the narrator “I’s” voice with Frost’s own voice is “The Road Not Taken.” The poem is widely misunderstood; I wrote about it here.

  8. AesopFan Says:

    “Such boundary walls are actually quite common around the world, as you can see, and there are myriad reasons for having them (scroll down at the link for the very long list). Is it only the US that’s not allowed to have a wall?”
    * * *
    It’s only the US that’s not allowed to do a lot of things, or is required to do other things (fund the UN at an outrageously high level, for instance, and send aid to people who want to kill us (although that last is shared with Israel)).

  9. AesopFan Says:

    That was indeed a very long list, and some of the barriers are up to 20 years old and older.
    I notice that one particular reason is cited for the huge majority of the walls as justification.
    Three guesses, if you haven’t looked yet, and the first two don’t count.

  10. neo-neocon Says:

    Frog:

    By the way, one doesn’t hear frost heaves or even see them happen. One sees the result, whether it be the upward displacement of the road, or the movement of rocks. The freezing happens underground and causes the lift, and then in the spring when there’s a thaw there’s often more movement (generally, downward).

    Lots of information about it here, as well as at many other sites.

  11. Frog Says:

    OK, Neo. There is a lot for me not to like about the narrator of this poem.

    My point about the frost heaves, which you repeat, is taken from the poem. They occur unwitnessed, my point exactly, and Frost’s too. Despite that, he invokes hunters (and perhaps trespassers by implication).

  12. om Says:

    Frog:

    Building and maintaining a stone wall isn’t quite so simple to do right.

    Before pressure treated wood, you used cedar for rot resistance.

    http://www.finehomebuilding.com/2017/03/07/stone-walls-stay-built
    http://www.finehomebuilding.com/1999/11/01/building-dry-stone-walls

  13. Frog Says:

    om:
    I have built several hundred feet of stone walls aka fences. They still stand, unchanged. They were not built in frost-heave country though.

  14. om Says:

    Frog:

    As I recal the author of the more recent article plys his trade in New England (Vermont)?

  15. Lorenz Gude Says:

    I grew up on a farm in NH in the late 40s and 50s and even as I sweat in the heat of the Western Australian summer the understatement, the sly implications, the irony, even the body language come across time and space with palpable clarity. Of course in that time and place we would never us a term like body language or fret over bunnies. Anyone who did would earn a well concealed look of contempt.

  16. The Other Chuck Says:

    I spent the last half hour composing a reasoned, dispassionate response, arguing that a wall by any other name would accomplish the desired result and how symbolism gets in the way. After looking it over I decided it would be wasted here.

    The first stanza of Belloc’s The Rebel, and only the first stanza says it better:

    There is a wall of which the stones
    Are lies and bribes and dead men’s bones.
    And wrongfully this evil wall
    Denies what all men made for all,
    And shamelessly this wall surrounds
    Our homesteads and our native grounds.

  17. OlderandWheezier Says:

    Thanks for sharing the poem, neo. It’s probably my favorite of Frost’s, but I hadn’t taken the time to read it in years.

    I recall attempting to recite it for a classroom exercise in the 1970’s, my anxiety leaving me with a voice that was high-pitched and unnatural. (I did a far better job of it just now.)

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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