A literary interlude: ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’

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With winter’s fury assailing us this weekend, it’s the time when I like to hunker down with a book like a comfortable old blanket and ruminate upon some of those longstanding words of wisdom from poets and sages from years gone by.

For today, none other than that esteemed American poet Robert Frost comes to mind. And though he has any number of poems that evoke images of snow and winter, it happens to be one that actually anticipates winter’s close and the coming of the spring that for what ever reason has been on my mind. The title of that work is the 105-year-old “Mending Wall.”

I still firmly remember this poem being etched into my psyche in Lucy Hicks’ AP English class at Goldsboro High School (for all the many teachers I have had, Ms. Hicks gets my own assertion as the most influential educator of all, whose insights serve me even as I write this). On first reading, it is a very simple poem with two characters — farmers — and one simple task — to fix the wall that divides their two properties.

On the surface, it is a simple, mechanical, annual necessity that these two characters carry out each spring to rebuild the stone wall that mysteriously comes undone during the winter months. But what has stuck with me for the better part of five decades are the two refrains representing each of the two farmers and their attitudes toward this boundary between them.

The narrator begins with his seeming disdain for the wall by stating: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” He says this twice to state what he sees as self-evident — that nature (or even something magical) seems to constantly tear the wall down, or else why would there be this constant need to mend the wall? And of course, he questions why there is even a need for the wall as: “He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines.”

In other words, there is not really anything that this wall is going to keep either in or out by its being there, let alone with all the holes that keep popping up that they have to keep mending, so what’s the purpose? Maybe this would have had an antiquated purpose in a time past, but it does no good now!

This, of course, prompts what is the most famous of phrases for me from the poem, the response of his neighbor, which seems to be a phrase passed down from generations before: “Good fences make good neighbours.”

This is an unquestioned edict (that Frost actually got from his real neighbor in New Hampshire) used as a motto that acts as an undisputed predicate. Of course, as analysis of the poem reveals, this neighbor is veiled in darkness that the poet would see as ignorance. And though the whole of the poem centers around the question as to “Why,”—why continue with something whose purpose has been lost? — the final line stubbornly reaffirms the neighbor’s view: “Good fences make good neighbours.”

One hundred and five years after this poem was written and almost 50 years after it was taught to me, the resonances of these two conflicting ideas of walls, fences and boundaries continue to swirl in my consciousness. Certainly in the era of the #MeToo movement and recognition that there are certain powerful men who feel they have elite privilege over their subordinates, the idea of personal boundaries and the need to recognize the rights of equality and mutuality in relationships actually reinforces that phrase, “Good fences make good neighbours.” But really, beyond that metaphorical and relational usage, the message of this poem has only been reinforced as time has marched on.

As that famous “Earthrise” photo illustrated 50 years ago on Christmas Eve from Apollo 8, there is really only one earth — a fragile, blue ball in the vastness of the universe with one people perched on its surface. No walls — stone or otherwise — across your back yard, or even across the girth of China — can mar that truth as the Creator intended.

And if the Bible has any insight to add, the most famous wall I remember from that literary classic was the mighty wall of Jericho. As I recall, God had an opinion about that one too.

And though the context may be different, the message seems consistent with what Robert Frost implies about nature and beyond: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And at least to the faithful Christian, that “Something” would seem to be God Himself!

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 27 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” appears weekly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.