Something there is that loves a wall

At one point or another every English major has had to read Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall.

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 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 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 be honest, I’ve always hated Robert Frost, not for the conservative Mending Wall but for The Road Not Taken, a poem all my professors loved because they could use it to teach their students that “poetry resists interpretation.” Blah Blah Blah Yeah Modernist Bullshit. Another famous poem “Death of the Hired Man”isn’t concerned about the hired man at all, but about his employer’s wife, who agrees with her husband that the working class is more or less obsolete but believes that “we” should treat them with compassion. In Mending Wall Frost is upfront about who he is, a cranky old school New England Republican who believes that we define ourselves but what we own and by what boundaries we set between ourselves and our neighbors.

Riding my bike today through my hometown of Roselle, NJ I was intrigued by this pair of houses. Look closely. They seem like two completely nondescript suburban houses, but it seems as if their owners have come together to build a wall, not between themselves, but between themselves and the rest of the world. Examine the fence. It’s clearly the same material, the same paint job, the same construction.

Roselle, NJ July 2020

So I wonder. Did the two owners come together and say “let’s build a wall together?” What happens if one of them moves? Is there a contract about who gets custody of the the other half? And what exactly are they trying to keep out? It’s not as if someone couldn’t just walk around the side of one of the houses and get into their common backyard. Maybe they have barbecues together. Maybe they share a common pet? There are so many intriguing questions about nondescript suburban houses in New Jersey if only you look more closely.

2 thoughts on “Something there is that loves a wall”

  1. Every time I see ‘poetry’ like that my eyes glaze over and I start having fond thoughts of easy wallowing in The Grundrisse.

    Have a close look at that photo and first notice the matching panels on the fencing to the left. These are swing gates to permit access by a vehicle to the rear. There is a building visible there which is probable a service shed or small barn. The fencing continues with one larger panel to the the same style. But the gate to the right or adjacent to the small house is different. Note the large trees to rear. It is likely the main house to the left is a larger legacy building which once had larger grounds. Typically such properties in time sell off sections of land on their perimeters. The small bungalow would be classic. The boundary line would be close with just enough to permit pedestrian passage to the rear which is what is indicated. Closer investigation would likely settle the question.

    To me, that picture is poetry. You have to study, analyze it, investigate, puzzle it out. Very nice of you you to lay that challenge out for inspection. See what fish nibble.

    1. Right. The house on the left is an old farmhouse, probably built in the 1890s. The house on the right is postwar bungalow built under the GI Bill. But I think the fence is fairly recent. The town has largely recovered from the crash of 2008 because a lot of Hispanics from Elizabeth are buying houses. Both houses have been renovated over the past 5 years. I didn’t capture it in the photo but there’s a small brook/stream just to the right of the smaller house so you wouldn’t be able to get a car in from that side. It’s possible/probable that the the property attached to the house on the left extends all the way over to that single gate on the right (which definitely predates the large fence).

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