Mending-time on MLK Day

Martin Luther King Jr. Day brings to mind lots of things, some too offensive or not controversial enough for society. As humans we seem to love to fight, love to build walls and demarcate ours from theirs. So I call on poet Robert Frost again because most have heard and read the “I have a Dream” speech and many have decided what to think about that. Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” has probably been studied to death in English and Literature classes but we don’t encounter it often. I don’t profess to have any mastery of Frost’s psyche, but his poetry often leaves doorways in the mind.

Freeeimages.com/Luke Taylor
Photo by Freeimages.com/Luke Taylor

Some may argue that Frost is suggesting “fences make good neighbors,” but the phrase “good fences make good neighbors” is written to make a different point. He states right at the start that there is something that makes us “love a wall,” suggesting it is human nature, training, enculturation. As the poem goes on we see that the act of building (mending) the fence is a routine. That is we don’t necessarily know why we do it when there is no good reason (like not having cows that will wander across property lines). We do it anyway and act like it is the civilized thing to do. He shows the irony of our thinking about medieval (and quite brutal) times by using the image of a stone wall as a mark of civility. He also says there is something there that wants the wall down. It occurs naturally over time even. The speaker is the one who reaches out to the neighbor to meet to rebuilding the wall but he questions the neighbor about why they do it. It is his neighbor who doesn’t accept the argument that there is no reason for a wall and repeats his father’s old mindset that this is simply what is done, how it is. He uses the phrase mending-time poignantly in the context of an entire explanation and attempt at understanding the process, reasoning and working together with someone who “moves in darkness.” Therein lies an epiphany about truly mending anything. Call it the “mischief in me” and him that I wish mending were more than just “another kind of outdoor game” and people would step into the light.

“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 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.
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.”