G is for good

Advent Calendar Day 7 – Keep your eyes peeled for dwarves, elves and other Christmas folk!

Good fences make good neighbors. (Liebe deinen Nachbarn, aber reiß den Zaun nicht ein.)

This 17th century proverb is very popular in America. It means “live and let live” and “respect the privacy of others”.

The saying is so well-known because Robert Frost (1874-1963), one of America’s most beloved poets, included it in his poem The Mending Wall, written in 1914. In it, two men meet to perform maintenance together on their mutual boundary, an act that bonds them and brings them closer together. It is not the state of the fence, but the act of keeping the fence in good shape that makes them good neighbours.

This video interpretation remembering the Berlin Wall (1961-1989) hinges on the first line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall“. This changes the meaning of the poem into a criticism of walls in general. The soundtrack is a very old recording of Frost reading the poem himself:

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 neighbour 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 neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? 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 offence.
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 neighbours.”

Published by

Anne

Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

8 thoughts on “G is for good”

  1. This is food for thought! well yes, good fences make good neighbours because it refers to respect : you can see your neighbour and talk to him accross the fence and last but not least *repair* the fence with the neighbour, and thus have a common activity to maintain a good relationship. All this blabla just to say : a fence is not a wall.

  2. Bienvenue, Alice!
    Right you are. It’s so interesting to pay attention to personal space, and to negotiate over and over again what we want to share and what we want to keep to ourselves. I think that tends to change over a lifetime, and with the cultures we inhabit when we move or when we start taking part in new conversations. Right now I feel web2.0 has opened up a whole bag of questions on how to redefine privacy. It’s great to meet at the garden fence and chat with you and other bloggers :)
    Thanks for dropping by… and have a nice day!
    Anne

  3. The Frost poem isn’t about wall or fences, privacy or personal space.

    The story of mending wall is an anecdote about a man who clings to what he was taught without thinking for himself.The neighbor “moves in darkness” that’s intellectual. Frost would like to get the man to think about why he holds his opinions, to evaluate his long-standing traditions.

  4. Welcome, Linda!

    Thanks very much for this. That’s how I’d see the writer’s position, certainly, and why I like the way the video uses the poem. The writer is challenging his neighbour. But what makes him want to leave it up to the neighbour to give up the obsolete fence? He says, “I’d rather / He said it for himself”. Surely that’s an act of respecting the other’s freedom of choice, the need to live side by side even if they don’t see eye to eye? I suspect the poem is so powerful because of the tension between these two interpretations.
    I read somewhere that “moves in darkness” could apply to any number of beliefs that Frost took issue with.
    Thanks again!

    Anne

  5. Anne,

    in times of not industrial but media revolution it may be worth resting more than 30 seconds on your blog. And if somebody does it, he or she will get into a depth of meaning, especially when he or she is not a native English speaker.

    I have to repeat the poem a lot of times to get into it, and it is a adventure!

    I love it!

  6. Dear Helburg,
    The meaning will change a little at every reading.
    Do take some time to stay a little longer. I’m here if you have questions.
    How about lighting those twin candles, “peace” and “adventure”?

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