Behind His Father’s Saying

I have long admired the poetry of Robert Frost; in fact, one of his poems, in particular, is a favorite of mine. No, it’s not “The Road Not Taken” or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” though both certainly have their merits, but rather is “Mending Wall.”

I admit that Frost is often a go-to choice for me because of my penchant for rural motifs and county folk. There is simply something about people close to the land, often depending on the earth, even trying to scratch out a living from it, that speaks to me of the human spirit, that God-given will to endure. Rural living encourages us “to get real” and humbles us quickly when we begin to think too highly of our abilities. If you’ve never tried to stop a pasture full of grasshoppers and army worms from devastating your grasslands or crops, it’s possible you’ve not been completely humbled, especially if your family relies on those very things. Rural people, even today in this highly technological world, see reality in its elemental state quite clearly.

Frost often set his poetry in rural New England among those who lived the “country life.”

Mending Wall

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.'

To me, the poem can be seen on so many levels and from so many angles. I don’t know that critics would have the same ideas, but, to me, beyond the more obvious ideas about doing things the way they’ve always been done, or never questioning if what is wisdom in some cases is in all, I find myself contemplating such notions as boundaries and their personal desirableness. Even if “his apple trees” will never eat “the cones” under his neighbor’s “pines,” could there still be a reason to keep the boundaries clearly designated? When do boundaries become isolating? Are human beings too separated as John Donne wrote: No man is an island,/ Entire of itself;/ Every man is a piece of the continent,/ A part of the main/…. Don’t people still need their “own space’? Is his neighbor really “moving in darkness” or does he simply cling to the old ways? Simply some thoughts.

Another poem of Frost’s that says something to some of us rural and sentimental types follows:

On the Sale of My Farm

Well-away and be it so,
To the stranger let them go.
Even cheerfully I yield
Pasture or chard, mowing-field,
Yea and wish him all the gain
I required of them in vain.
Yea and I can yield him house,
Barn, and shed, with rat and mouse
To dispute possession of.
These I can unlearn to love.
Since I cannot help it? Good!
Only be it understood,
It shall be no trespassing
If I come again some spring
In the grey disguise of years,
Seeking ache of memory here.

And that says it all.

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