“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost

 All I, myself, can do is to urge you to place friendship above every human concern that can be imagined! Nothing else in the whole world is so completely in harmony with nature, and nothing so utterly right, in prosperity and adversity alike.  — Cicero, “On Friendship”

Two men who meet to repair a stone wall have a serious disagreement about the virtues of a neighbor, one man insisting that “Good fences make good neighbors,” a proverbial saying he has inherited from his father that he associates with timeless wisdom. Another man questions the soundness of this advice, regarding it as impractical and outdated—a custom of the past no longer suitable for the current situation of the two neighbors’ adjoining farms that no longer breed cows. His idea of neighborliness finds no need for fences: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  According to an annual custom, the two neighbors meet on a spring day to rebuild the stone fence that has toppled from the wear of winter and shows “gaps even two can pass abreast.” The neighbor who doesn’t love a wall has no interest in performing this empty ritual that occurs each year, a perfunctory gesture that recalls a dark age when a man carrying rocks gave the impression of “an old-stone savage armed” for battle. Each year the neighbors mend the wall they observe a rule they uphold strictly, each man carrying only the stones that have fallen on his side of the property: “To each the boulders that have fallen to each.”  While this division of labor appears equitable and orderly, the man who doesn’t love a wall finds it a foolish rite of spring, “just another kind of outdoor game, /One on a side.” Why rebuild a fence each year that is destined to collapse and needs a magician to make the stones stay in place: “We have to use a spell to make them balance: /‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned’.”

robert-frostThis annual observance of rebuilding conveys some semblance of neighborliness.  Each man assumes responsibility for the stones on his half of the fence; each man divides the labor; each man cooperates in the spirit of mutual helpfulness; and each man honors the virtue of justice that the wall signifies, the meaning of “mine” and “thine.” Justice of course implies respecting the right of private property and the meaning of no trespassing. Neighborliness means living at peace and avoiding quarrels with regard to possessions, and a fence maintains clear boundaries that prevent misunderstanding and contentious arguments. Good neighbors render one another their proper due in terms of rights, freedoms, and obligations. The saying “Good fences make good neighbors” sounds like great common sense gleaned from a lifetime of experience. But the neighbor that doesn’t love a wall keeps asking “Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it/ Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.” Instead of cows crossing fences and farmers losing livestock and profit as in the past, new conditions have changed the relations between the farms and neighbors: “He is all pine and I am apple orchard.” No property damage is possible with animals wandering and trespassing. The building of a fence is a waste of time and serves no purpose. Something else besides fences makes good neighbors.

Even Mother Nature is whispering this self-evident truth. If the fence falls every year and needs mending every spring, then some greater force than hunters, animals, or weather also “doesn’t love a wall.” This “something” is not one neighbor’s whimsy or subjective opinion or some mysterious being’s intervention: “I could say ‘Elves’ to him, /But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather/ He said it for himself.” This “something” is not some imaginary fictional creature but common sense and truth. This “something” is man’s human nature, man’s social being and love of friendship that enjoys sociability, conversation, and hospitality. Neighborliness that never goes beyond the letter of the law and the obligations of justice suffers from the absence of the noble generosity of friendship, the mutual giving and receiving that transcends boundaries, walls, and legalism. Love of neighbor invites friendship, charity, affection, and kindness. The “something” that resents walls is the heart that seeks bonds that tie and unite. As Cicero writes, “What we enjoy in a friend is not the profit we derive from him, but the affection.” The neighbor who doesn’t love a wall seeks a personal, informal relationship, not a formal or legal contract: “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.” While a wall separates property, it also bars the free natural interaction and normal exchange that man’s social nature desires.

The “Something” that doesn’t love a wall is man’s convivial nature and desire for the human touch that gladly gives and gratefully receives in spontaneous, surprising ways that do not calculate the cost or reduce themselves to the rules of a game.  Man needs more than formal relationships or business agreements based on utility or justice. Friendship, like love or goodness, is communicative, diffusive, and generous—not reserved. If the two neighbors let the broken wall remain unrepaired, the coming and going of neighbors could occur with no inhibitions, the giving and receiving would encounter no obstacles, and the natural flowing and moving of friendship would follow its natural course. Like the neighbor who would not ignore his father’s saying, men foolishly build useless walls that accomplish nothing, false barriers that needlessly cause separation and alienation. Elitism, cliquishness, clannishness, nationalism, and partisanship represent only some of the ways that persons keep their distance and remove others from inner exclusive circles. The neighbor who valued good fences more than good friends fails to appreciate that neighborliness without friendship never touches the heart or wins affection. What are human relationships without the virtues of the heart which true friendship cultivates: affection, loyalty, good will, attachment, generosity, kindness, and hospitality? How can such virtues begin or grow when the builders of fences never ask what they are “walling in or walling out.” Christ’s commandment of “love thy neighbor as thyself” means the kindness, compassion, and generosity of the Good Samaritan—not “mine” and “thine.” Dr. Johnson’s description of friendship as “the wine of life” means conviviality and mirth—not grim men morosely carrying stones like savages armed for war.

Mitchell Kalpakgian

By

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children s Literature.

  • Samurai

    Friendship needs walls. They are the gentle barriers we use, without being pointed or personal, to remind people that this is the zone we need in order to pursue our assigned duties in life. Boundaries may remind us of the limitations upon personal communion that exist in this life, but this life isn’t all.
    And many are the less-than-communal neighbors who try to move walls in your direction, foot by yard by mile, in order to take what isn’t theirs. And their invasion becomes a permanent loss if you leave it uncorrected, under the laws of most states. It is not walls that make such people unscrupulous, any more than prisons make men turn to crime.
    To use a happy-talk expression, walls are our friends.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SoulPatch Richard Norman

    On the other hand, meeting yearly to work together, be social, converse, and enjoy each others company and rejoice in a job well done, together, sounds like being neighborly to me. Without this wall, would these neighbors ever meet/speak?

  • msmischief

    One neighbor retreats behind “Good fences makes good neighbors” and goes no further. The narrator, on the other hand, points out that where there are no cows — all pines and apples — a fence is fruitless.

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