Arts & Leisure

Mending Wall and Yankee Friendship

THESE STONES ARE part of the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton.

It’s May, the best month of the Vermont year, and we are deeply into our spring rituals. Everything has gone from brown to a glorious green, Color abounds in the landscape. The daffodils and tulips have arrived and are soon gone. Pussy willows! Lilacs. Apple blossoms. 

And the chores, clearing the detritus of winter, keeping the woods at bay — mowing, weeding, brush hogging, those tasks we so begrudge in summer’s heat, we engage without complaint in May. 

Many of the poems of Robert Frost, the Bard of Ripton, are celebrations and deliberations on seasonal change in this part of the world. His “Mending Wall,” a spring poem, is a delightfully deliberate poem, about the springtime rituals of denizens of the north country, The poem itself is a bit of a ramble, nothing rushed, befitting the haphazard pace of the gesture which is at the heart of the poem: repairing a wall of stones at “spring mending-time.” 

The speaker in “Mending Wall” ruminates somewhat bemusedly on this annual ritual of repairing the stone wall that separates his property from that of his neighbor, a taciturn fellow whom we know from the aphorism he likes to spout, “good fences make good neighbors.” 

I believe Frost is being playful with this central line. When I read it, I hear a rhyme, a Yankee rhyme, uttered with a distinctly New England accent: “good fenc-siz make good neigh-biz.” This expression, on which the poem turns, is a maxim that goes all the back to the 17th century. 

I was annoyed a few years ago when a committee at Middlebury College included “Mending Wall” in a set of readings for incoming students intended to introduce them to the native culture of the region, an introduction to the Yankee character. 

The problem for me was that the folks making the selections were all flatlanders, relative newcomers, who felt that a few years in this rarefied place, Middlebury College in Middlebury Vermont, gave them expertise to generalize about Vermont culture. 

(On the other hand, they were experts on how warmly, or coolly, they felt they had been received in this new place for them.) 

Their view of the poem was cautionary, even negative, believing “Mending Wall” revealed the kind of chilly reserve newcomers encounter in these parts, expressive of the barriers to intimacy that are erected and maintained by Yankees in this region: they emphasized the lines where the two characters in the poem “walk the line/And set the wall between us once again. We keep the walls between us as we go.” 

That view has merit to be sure, but the poem can also be seen as something of an invitation to friendship. Repairing the wall in the poem, mending the fence, is an activity, an annual ritual. They’re not going out for a beer, they’re not having cocktails on the deck, they’re repairing the wall! It’s possible good fences do make good neighbors, in this case anyway. They plan, they get together, they work, they connect, on some level at least. It’s a neighborly enterprise. 

Walking the line, repairing the wall, may be just an “outdoor game” they are playing, “nothing more,” as the speaker suggests, but it is more than that too.

I know, it’s a wall. There is irony in this poem, layers of meaning, and irony is the coin of the realm in these parts. They are not building a wall — they’re mending a wall. There’s a difference.

The mending of a fence, or wall, in this poem need not be emblematic solely of enforcing a separation, a distance, in a relationship, and evidence of Yankee reserve. After all, the meaning of the colloquial expression,” mending fences,” is just the opposite.

When we say, “I have to mend that fence,” we intend a reconciliation, a gesture of healing. Fences are interesting metaphors (one of my favorite pieces of American literature is August Wilson’s drama, “Fences”): fences keep things in and keep things out. They are symbols of order, structure, permanence. 

Intact, these stone walls are aesthetically appealing. Aren’t we all moved by the stone walls we see in Vermont, surrounding the pastures and fields? We sense what it took to make them, to harvest the stones from the field so animals might graze and crops be tilled. They honor the past.

When you see one of these walls that has crumpled in places, or been disturbed, don’t you have impulse to set it right? I do. Don’t these walls represent somehow the connection and the border between the human and the natural world? Mending the wall is an adjustment that doesn’t impair or destroy but maintains. 

I know that the speaker sees his neighbor at the end as moving “in darkness as it seems to me, not of woods only and shades of trees.” Those lines do give pause, but I like to imagine these two men walking their property line, very different people from one another, and . . . they’re not arguing over the boundary, calling a lawyer — they’re just mending the wall. 

They’re having a good time, I think, spending some time together, bonding as neighbors in a ritual of connection. They are not soulmates. It’s the way we Yankees make friends. It takes a little time and effort and forbearance, but it’s worth it, generally. We are, in the end, a steadfast bunch.

We should all walk our “property lines,” with our neighbors and friends this season: take the stones from the fields of our lives and make something lasting and pleasing of them; mend a fence, tell a joke or two, make someone smile, shake hands — and commit to doing it again.

Let’s mend a wall this week!

(Karl Lindholm Ph.D is a retired dean and faculty member at Middlebury College. He grew up in Maine and has lived in Addison County for a half century. He taught a course at Middebury, “Roads Less Traveled,” an examination of the Yankee archetype. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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.’

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