by Evan Mantyk

As the border wall with Mexico that President Trump is building gains greater and greater attention, so too has the early 20th century poem, “Mending Wall,” by American poet Robert Frost. The poem takes issue with the old proverb “good fences make good neighbors,” which happens to be precisely the same proverb that Vice President Mike Pence has used in the past to describe the border wall with Mexico.

Speaking about the wall, Pence said, “But you know, there’s an old saying in Indiana that good fences make good neighbors. And the way we can be good neighbors is with strong leadership in the United States as a start.”

Now, Frost’s poem is becoming a sort of anti-wall anthem. To be clear, the proverb preceded the poem though some people seem to think Pence was quoting Frost.

At any rate, the catapulting of an old poem to front page news, or any page, is always exciting for literary types and led one Washington Post writer to even write her own version of Frost’s poem, lampooning Pence’s sentiment. The poem is neither well written nor compassionate to those who have suffered because of the problems caused by illegal immigration. That said, it does have the terrific line, “Good Pences make good neighbors.” I’ll drink to that.

Lost in the romanticism of poetry and politics is the fact that Frost’s anti-wall poem specifically stipulated that the wall in his poem was not needed since “there are no cows.” The implication made by Frost is that good fences do indeed make good neighbors when you have a situation where things are crossing over that aren’t supposed to. Thus, Vice President Pence or any other pro-wall politician may happily quote Frost and the proverb unimpeded—just be careful not to call illegal immigrants cows outright.

Finally, in the same vein, I offer to you a poem in response to Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”:

 

Building Wall

There is something there that loves a wall:
The easy car trip when your loved ones call—
No need to worry cows might block the road
And pepper it with putrid, pie-like load.
No need to live a life in fear of crime
Thanks to my front door, it’s the wall that I’m
Most thankful for. It also keeps me warm
And saves me from the lashings of a storm.
The lines are walls as well in Renaissance art,
Dividing colors, pulling space apart;
The lines are firmly shaded, unrelenting,
And chief among the means used for inventing.

Now you may hear folks quote the poet Frost
That building walls comes at some sort of cost:
A loss of our humanity’s connection,
A severing of some vague innate extension.
For Frost claims that he mends a needless wall,
Implying his mind’s broad, his neighbor’s small.
Frost mocks the phrase “Good fences make good neighbors”—
A civil tradition the common man harbors.
Yet who knows all? Who knows the future’s course?
Is not the urge to mend a greater force?
New grandkids may need fences when they play;
Strong walls on property will one day pay.
No, it was Frost who had a wall in heart
That tore tradition’s timeless truth apart…
So if a man requests a wall, then build it.
It’s more than what you think you see that willed it.

 

 


Views expressed by individual poets and writers on this website and by commenters do not represent the views of the entire Society. The comments section on regular posts is meant to be a place for civil and fruitful discussion. Pseudonyms are discouraged. The individual poet or writer featured in a post has the ability to remove any or all comments by emailing submissions@ classicalpoets.org with the details and under the subject title “Remove Comment.”

12 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    Frost frequently wrote poems to distance himself from what he considered unthinking rural prejudices, even while he himself posed as the epitome of rock-ribbed New England authenticity. “The Road Not Taken” is another example in this vein: the speaker portrays himself as a high-minded risk-taker who acted in a manner that was unthinkable to his less imaginative neighbors. It’s all fake — Frost himself was an unspeakable creep, with the morals of a small-time hoodlum.

    The left-liberal fanatics who oppose the wall with Mexico have simply seized upon Frost’s poem as a convenient propaganda weapon. They know that the poem is one of the few traditional poems still taught in grade school, and that it will therefore ring a bell with many Americans.

    Mr. Mantyk’s poem is a perfect answer. You can bet that the Democrats who are raging against the wall sure as hell have a lot of double locks and alarm systems in their well-policed, affluent communities.

    Reply
    • Hugh Maclean

      The Statue of Liberty is the symbol of America that people should identify with not a wall. Closed border closed mind.

      Reply
      • Evan mantyk

        I don’t think anyone wants a different symbol do they? Open borders open wallet?

  2. Damian Robin

    Ahoy to you, good neighbour
    Across the jagged crests
    That barb about this island
    And halt aggressive guests.

    These waves have made foes waver,
    Made Hitler’s hordes think twice;
    With you we built our stand
    Then whopped him – which was nice.

    The E.U.’s bound’ries stoop,
    Except where mountains rise
    Or rivers cut a loop,
    A free trade compromise.

    A moat defends a castle
    With distance, depth, and drench;
    But discipline trumps hassle –
    See Vikings, Romans, French* –.

    When smelling putrid flavour –
    Sick drugs and trafficked flesh –
    A stop’s a fair demand
    To re-jig trading fresh.

    Our walls must move through sand
    With money, matter, might,
    Restructuring the land:
    Foundations, length, and height.

    Good boundaries need labour,
    And written legal scrawl;
    Here Nature’s level hand;
    Holds water as our wall.

    But walls, we must maintain them,
    On both sides, breaks, and bends.
    For that we need to train them,
    For that we need good friends.

    * Vikings, Romans, and Normans all invaded Britain.

    Reply
  3. James Sale

    I like the discussion about Frost and what he meant, as well as Evan Mantyk’s philosophical disquisition on it. It’s a fine poem and response. But I have always understood the point about the ‘wall’ as being metaphorical for limitations generally: without limits, without boundaries, nothing is possible. This is something, I think, inherent in the philosophy of all Classical poets and is anti-modernistic. Take just one form, the sonnet: it is precisely the ‘walls’ of 14 lines, iambic pentameters, and an intricate rhyming scheme that generate the power that is the sonnet. Free verse can simply never generate that kind of power; ‘walls’ generate the power – the voluntary limitation that forces the language to work at its maximum impact. And if we extend this philosophically to theology, we find exactly the same idea incorporated (note the metaphor in that word too – ‘corp’) in the Incarnation. The idea that God Almighty could become a human being is seemingly absurd, but in creating the limitation – the kenosis as theologians might put it – God becomes (if I may be slightly irreverent) a living sonnet, or more accurately perhaps a living Epic. The power of God seemingly reduced by the limitation of time and space actually increases. So from considering the homely poem, Mending Wall by Frost, and the idea of fences and neighbours, we actually touch upon a most stupendous paradox of the universe; and furthermore, this paradox is a matter of essential interest to all classical poets, since we believe in ‘walls’ (irrespective of one’s personal politics or religion). For myself, of course, in the case of the politics, the big issue for the UK is to have a ‘wall’ with the EU – in other words, to make Brexit happen!

    Reply
  4. Damian Robin

    Hi James, yes, walls need to be applied metaphorically. We need to draw the lines, write lines to enforce boundaries. We cannot grow or interact well without marking boundaries. We can’t just draw lines in the sand, we have to make map lines ‘concrete’. As poets we will know this – we write the lines – we use words and value their rhetorical, real abilities.
    We are humans as well, physical beings; we need also to make physical boundaries — build physical walls of stone, brick, concrete, wood, steel, water, or air (as in ha-has or trenches).
    Being in the UK, you and I may have missed how the well-known Frost poem is being used in the US to suggest that walls – specifically the Mexico/US Border Wall – should not be built.
    Frost writes that he wonders if he could put a notion in the head of someone who thinks walls make good neighbours.
    ” 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. ”
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall
    This is the unspoken nub of immigration. The Left Liberal view is that all people coming to the US have sensible principles; are rational; have good knowledge of what they are moving towards; and that what they are moving away from is immediately life-threatening and insoluble.
    The Border Control Agent and spokesman for the National Border Control Council, Chris Cabrera, shows that this is not true.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR-vkrhe43c
    Please take the time to view, it’s ten minutes.
    What is happening in the UK parallels the influx of people into the US . A pity there has been no one effective in UK politics to implement Brexit in the last two years since the vote to leave the EU. So many people here think Trump is a mess and deviant. Yet he has achieved so much of what he set out to when running for office. And looks to be getting a long-standing Mexican Border.

    Reply
    • Damian Robin

      As to your profound statement on God Incarnate, the best I can do now is repeat it: ” The idea that God Almighty could become a human being is seemingly absurd, but in creating the limitation – the kenosis as theologians might put it – God becomes (if I may be slightly irreverent) a living sonnet, or more accurately perhaps a living Epic. The power of God seemingly reduced by the limitation of time and space actually increases. ”
      Perhaps someone with depth in Theology would comment on this.

      Reply
  5. James A. Tweedie

    Keneow—the biblical Greek word found in Philippians 2:7 referring to how God “emptied himself…taking the form of a servant.” An idea that required a complete cosmological shift to make sense of it. The implications drawn from this idea are consistent with the teachings of Jesus (“the first shall be last” “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all.”) as well as the example of Christ’s life, itself. (“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”) The concept frames the Christian idea of love, which is to place the best interests of neighbor ahead of your own. The concept also leads to the necessity of the doctrine of the Trinity, with a Godhead in an internal/eternal relationship of simultaneous authority and submission, transcendence and imminence, sacrifice and exaltation, etc. James’ comment is of the sort one of my theology professors would have referred to as, “trenchant.” It is not, however, a point that I find to be particularly helpful in arguing either for or against such things as Brexit or a border wall.

    Reply
  6. James Sale

    Thanks for your comments Damian and James A.: all good – you are absolutely right in asserting that it is not a point that is especially helpful in deciding whether one is for or against Brexit or a border wall. But it is important in terms of understanding the idea of ‘walls’ as limitations or boundaries which, bizarrely and counterintuitively, can have the opposite effect to the limitation that they purport to achieve. As you put it, James, the ‘cosmological shift’. I think that that kind of bigger mindset is significant when considering some of the political questions. So, for example, I am encouraged by the idea that good fences make good neighbours – as a Brexiteer – when I hear the utopian rant of Remainers who seem to think that national identity is a bad thing and that the world would be such a big happy place if only there were no borders between us and Europe. This kind of thinking, of course, is edging us towards Word War 3 as Europe, in the name of this one ‘dominion’ aka Holy Roman Empire aka Napoleonism aka fascism that it advances, encroaches on all the old domains of the USSR. But in one sense this is too big a thing to discuss here – but on the other, the freedom of the American Republic depends at one level on its culture and its ability to be able to see how its poetry either frees or entraps us/it with its thinking. So Evan has done a great job in bringing this poem and his response to it forward.

    Reply
  7. The Society

    Sent in by Ted Hayes…. with apologies to Mr. Shakespeare…

    Monday March 11, 2019

    To Evan Mantyk:

    To build, or not to build – that is the question
    Whether ’tis nobler, in the mind, to suffer
    The slings and arrows of unending caravans
    Or to take up pen against this wave of scofflaws
    And by opposing end them!

    – Mr. Mantyk, the above lacks the originality, and the punch, of yours on the same subject.

    Ted (Edward) Hayes

    Reply
  8. Ryan Burnett

    I would like to respectfully disagree with the thrust of this post’s interpretation of Frost’s “Mending Wall”. If I have understood Mr. Mantyk and Mr. Sale correctly, the reading of this poems is that walls can be good in certain circumstances; or that walls are good in a metaphorical way, just as the limitations of formal poetry are helpful towards the creation of mature poetry. I believe these interpretations are insufficient and will attempt to show why by pointing to the poem itself.

    First, we should acknowledge three persons in this poem: Frost, the speaker and the neighbor. It is not always the case that the speaker of the poem is the same as the poet.

    Second, consider the tone of this poem toward walls. In the first four lines, the speaker describes how “something” is antagonistic towards walls. This something is nature, and the invocation of nature is almost always one of reverence and authority. By calling it “something”, the speaker shrouds it, which is a sign that he finds it significant, and wants to make it alluring by making it elusive. The speaker calls the work of mending the wall “another kind of out-door game”; this is not a flattering description. In the same mocking tone, the speaker tells his neighbor that his apple trees will never eat his pine cones; i.e. this is a pointless exercise. As Mr. Mantyk pointed out, the speaker stipulates that walls can have a good purpose, but that the current exercise is not one of them. This is a true reading, but does not match the tone of the poem; it is an aside. The speaker then makes a claim that joins the main tone of the poem, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to now / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offence”. The force of these lines is a carefulness about wall-building. It is not, I believe, anti-wall, but rather hesitant; something like “as needed” not “out of habit”.

    Third, consider the speaker’s attitude toward his neighbor. He wants to “put a notion in his head”, he wants to educate him; he considers telling his neighbor the “elves” make the wall fall down, which is either just a playful thought or a low view of his neighbor’s intelligence. Towards the end of the poem he describes the neighbor as looking like a “savage” and claims the neighbor “moves in darkness”. The darkness is not shade, the speaker is referring to his neighbor’s spiritual darkness.

    With these pieces of evidence before us, I believe the poem is critical of wall-building as something done simply out of habit. The energy of the poem, the moments of quality description, humor and intensity are all aimed against the wall and the neighbor; with the exception of wall-building when needed. This is a better interpretation of the poem that includes more of the text and includes the tones in the poem. In Mr. Mantyk’s case, he pointed only to one moment in the poem, and ignored the resounding attitude; in Mr. Sale’s case, I believe he missed the poem’s point by simply calling something metaphorical. If Frost was making a point about walls as symbolic of the power of restrictions, he would not have made the speaker hesitant to build walls and critical of one who builds them habitually.

    To conclude, regardless of the political discussion about a wall on the Southern Border, a holistic reading of “Mending Walls” shows that the poem is critical of wall-building out of habit. That is the collective thrust of the poem. Ironically, it is Mr. Mantyk who summarizes what this poem is about in his poem about this poem “For Frost claims that he mends a needless wall, / Implying his mind’s broad, his neighbor’s small.”

    Reply
  9. Evan Mantyk

    Dear Mr. Burnett,

    I think you have put forward a reasonable interpretation. I don’t agree with it, as I think there is more to “habit” and tradition than people today admit or even begin to comprehend, but I do think positive lessons could be drawn from Frost’s poem. No one wants a needless and fundamentally destructive wall, like for example the Berlin Wall.

    At any rate, thank you for your thoughtful and courtesy response.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.