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Manifisto



"Mending Wall" is a very well-known and thankfully rather short and accessible poem by Robert Frost, published in 1914. You've probably read it.

Linky to text

I returned to it recently because it was referenced in a rather scholarly and elliptical opinion piece in the New York Times. I'm not suggesting we discuss the article here, because it is fairly political--although in an interestingly indirect way, which I believe is quite faithful to the spirit of Frost's poem. The commenters on the article seem to have all sorts of opinions about the subject of the article, the author's views, and the meaning of "Mending Wall," and I have to say many of them appear to be debating something entirely distinct from what the respective authors were getting at.

As a starting point, let us consider BYOBber FilthIncarnate's observation that:

FilthIncarnate posted:

Frost purposely and deliberately writes to be misunderstood; his style is carefully and calculatedly designed to give a veneer of accessibility while secretly being very strange and difficult.

Linky to Post/Thread

I could point you to this web page as an example of a few analytic efforts but since, unline FilthIncarnate, I am not a Frost scholar, please don't assume there is anything particularly worthwhile in those analyses.

My point is simply that the surface appearance of quaint folksiness is viewed by scholars as concealing a great deal of conceptual complexity. Also, and this is undoubtedly a handicap to most of us (including myself), since Frost was a very accomplished classical scholar, he could and did throw many extremely subtle allusions into his works that were unlikely to be noticed and appreciated by anyone other than a similarly trained reader.

Any thoughts or views or questions about the poem are welcome in this thread; it's not designed to be the exclusive domain of people who are "serious" about poetry or Frost. For my own part, what I thought might be worth discussing is two conceptual frameworks from which one might approach the poem. They're not necessarily mutually exclusive. I'll call them the "psychological" and the "Biblical" framework for short.

In both cases I take as a starting point that the poem is only passingly concerned with literal walls and fences. I tend to see a highly metaphorical structure having to do with boundaries, breaches, and coexistence, that happens to be grounded in an appealingly concrete naturalistic setting. I see the narrator as providing a more "Frostian" viewpoint, that is I believe the narrator's viewpoint is much closer to the author's, but with some possible complexities. I certainly think that neither the narrator nor Frost endorses unexamined adherence to the adage "good fences make good neighbors." But I also do not really see in the poem a strong sentiment that fences are an unqualified evil; instead there is more of a questioning of whether, when, and why to fence, and I suspect there is a further implicit examination of what kinds of fences or walls are "good."

Ingrid Rosselini's opinion piece gives what I think is a pretty decent starting point for the "psychological" framework:

Ingrid Rosselini posted:

It is clear that Frost’s narrator views this bit of folk wisdom with skepticism, but by refraining from providing a firm answer to our question, the poem manages to increase our curiosity: Besides the most obvious, delineating private property, what do “fences” truly represent?

If one looks at history, the answer seems obvious: What fences have very often indicated is not simply what is mine and what is yours, but, more subtly, who I am versus who you are. This tendency is based on the human inclination to define one’s identity in contrast to someone cast as a different, an untrustworthy Other best kept at a distance.

There is I suppose a lot more to be said about this. I don't want to clog up the OP with too much, and I'd love to have others weigh in. But one point perhaps worth positing up front is that the "neighbor" is not necessarily or exclusively something other than or opposed to the narrator, or indeed to Frost. I'm actually more inclined to view the neighbor and the narrator as opposing/complementary/interacting tendencies within one unified entity - call it a person, or "mankind" in general, or the human psyche, or whatever. Frost may be suggesting that even though the narrator thinks of himself as in many ways more "advanced" or illuminated than the neighbor, they are perhaps not quite as dissimilar as it might initially appear, and indeed the narrator might be failing to fully grasp certain virtues in the neighbor's perspective.

And this ties into what I am probably most eager to discuss, which is a more specifically Biblical interpretation. A case might be made that the poem is modeled on the Holy Trinity - perhaps, more specifically, the aspects of human nature on which different parts of the Trinity are focused. On the side of the neighbor, I see an Old Testament mindset, one of a stern father, rigid rules, blind adherence, violence, but also an underlying purpose of protection against evil and temptation. The narrator I believe is far more on the side of Jesus, the son, who is a lover and a teacher, who speaks the language of compassion, whose land bears "apple trees" that represent nourishing virtuous knowledge rather than sin. The wall, then, represents the division between the testaments. But there's another principle, something that "doesn't love a wall." It is never named, although it is "something like" an Elf (and therefore something magical/mystical), and mysteriously breaches the wall at times, requiring the boundary to be periodically patrolled and maintained through cooperation of two parties with different mindsets. And I'm wondering if that is meant to be the "holy spirit," the most ephemeral and problematic aspect of the Trinity, which may recognize the necessity of delineating Old Testament principles from the New Testament, but also understands that those boundaries must sometimes be permeable in order to understand how two seemingly opposite perspectives are unified into a broader whole. So maybe a "good fence" between the neighboring Testaments is one that exists for a virtuous purpose and one that is somewhat permeable and constantly renewed.

There are words and phrases that I see as providing more specific pointers to the Bible, and I am sure I'm missing the hell out of plenty of others. I'm happy to elaborate on those at some point, but I think this OP is probably already too long.

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cda


I wish FilthIncarnate would post here, but in his absence I'll just say that as I understand it, he thinks Frost is a charlatan who wrote all of his poems over a short period of time and then deliberately messed with their chronology in publication to give the impression that he was continuing to write throughout the course of his life. That's neither here nor there, but maybe if we say his name enough times he will appear.

cda


Oh, whoops, I see that's in the thread that Manifisto linked. Well anyway, at least I remembered it right.

Manifisto



cda posted:

Oh, whoops, I see that's in the thread that Manifisto linked. Well anyway, at least I remembered it right.

Yeah. FilthIncarnate had some interesting views, I mean that in a positive way but I think he was kinda guarded about them sometimes. My sense is that he viewed Frost as singularly brilliant, one of a few capable of writing what FilthIncarnate considers "real" poetry (a concept he never quite defined), but betrayed that brilliance by coasting on his early work rather than continuing to practice his art.

Splatmaster


HAIKOOLIGAN

I read through the poem, I got the impression Robert Frost was viewing walls as temporary things that make us feel better, but despite ourselves the elements (or hunters to appease their dogs) make gaps in our walls right after they're erected or mended and as soon as our backs are turned.

I get the feeling the author was being whimsical about it though, that he regarded walls as an illusion that, while solid, wasn't really stopping anything from doing anything. Just busywork to pass the time.

BYOB fun all year long! Sigs by: Manifisto and Vanisher, awesome BYOB people!!

Manifisto



Splatmaster posted:

I get the feeling the author was being whimsical about it though, that he regarded walls as an illusion that, while solid, wasn't really stopping anything from doing anything. Just busywork to pass the time.

There is certainly language in there to suggest that, but when the narrator says it comes to "little more" than a game I sort of think we are meant to take the hint that there is something decidedly non-game like about it. "Little more" is not the same as "nothing more." The narrator jokes that his apple trees won't come after the pine cones, but he doesn't talk about the reverse direction. Isn't it much more likely that someone would trespass to steal the apples? A very "original sin" like act. I think there is a suggestion that the neighbor may want the fence as a protection against his own desire to sin by trespassing and stealing.

With perhaps a further connotation that this is an incomplete mindset, because they are the narrator's apples and it is really up to the narrator to decide how paranoid he is about theft. In fact he may actually want the neighbor to cross the fence and take them. But in a sense that's exactly what the neighbor may fear: he's being "tempted" to take the apples, and the only way to know whether they are good fruit or bad fruit is to understand whether the narrator's intentions are benevolent (offering good knowledge) or evil (temptation to sin).

edit: I suspect that when the narrator says "here there are no cows" he is saying you need the wall against temptation only when dealing with brute animalistic impulses. There is no need for a wall "here," by the apple trees, because the narrator wishes to share, to grow closer; the narrator would not "take offense" at the neighbor coming over and taking the apples.

But that's just one way of viewing it, I have no idea if it's "right." It just seems to sort of hold up on first inspection.

Manifisto fucked around with this message at May 17, 2018 around 00:40

Manifisto



I might as well add, I'm pretty sure that in another sense, the wall is the poem itself, and Frost is inviting the reader - the "neighbor," i.e. us, me - to breach the wall of linguistic deception/metaphor that Frost has constructed and take the "apples," i.e. the real meaning of the poem. There are a number of things about the structure that suggest this to me.

e: I typed up a few things that I thought might be Biblical allusions, for discussion if people like:

  • "spring mending-time" - spring corresponds both to pagan renewal rituals and the crucifixion/resurrection
  • "[neighbor beyond] the hill" - calvary, the site of Christ's crucifixion, is often described as a hill
  • "some are loaves" - this one I think is fairly blatant, alluding to the miracle of the loaves and fishes
  • "and some so nearly balls / We have to use a spell to make them balance: / "Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"" - a scholar would probably do better at this one but I'd guess it might be a reference to Christ's tomb and the rolled-away stone that indicated his resurrection (i.e. it moved when people's backs were turned due to the miracle of rebirth)
  • "apple orchard" - as I've said, very Edenic, likely referring to the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil
  • "he is all pine" - darned if I know for sure but one possible guess is the pine boards that formed the cross
  • "Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top / In each hand" - could be the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments
  • "He will not go behind his father's saying" - again the "father's saying" sounds a lot like the Commandments, and "go behind" seems to have a double meaning - he won't break the commandments, but also he won't try to understand the spirit that motivates them and instead hews to the letter

ee: another one that I think is probably pretty central relates to the "neighbor" trope in the poem. The whole "self/other" distinction I've referred to is probably summed up pretty well in the commandment "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." This is a New Testament commandment, to be set in juxtaposition and perhaps opposition to the Old Testament commandments. The overall . . . hmm, essence . . . of this is to love (1) the neighbor and (2) thyself but not "the wall." Indeed to love the wall is to love that which separates neighbor and self.

So perhaps the thing that "does not love a wall" is another, better type of love. It may be relevant that "Elves" is only a letter off from "loves", that would be kind of a Joycean linguistic move.

eee: also both the "loaves" and "apples" symbols may (probably do) evoke the Eucharist (the communion, in which Christ offered bread and wine as his body and blood). This is another dimension of the "Christ-like" aspect of the narrator: in an indirect way he is offering himself (in the form of his apples, his land, his friendship) as food. The Old Testament commandments were of a very "thou shalt not" / limiting variety, laying out the boundaries you shouldn't transgress. The New Testament is more about encouraging people to take what is offered, having faith that it is offered in benevolence.

Trying to explain or parse the doctrines of "transubstantiation," "consubstantiation," and the like is a bit above my pay grade, but they're certainly held out by various faiths as miracles, and another paradox: something that has aspects of both food and holy love. One might liken the process of tearing down and reconstructing the wall, and deconstructing and interpreting the poem, as a form of transubstantiation.

Manifisto fucked around with this message at May 17, 2018 around 18:15

blaise rascal

And then there were two.

Thanks for the thread, and the analysis. At first I wasn't seeing any of the Biblical connections so I'm glad you pointed them out.

I like it best when poetry motivates the reader to do something practical - for instance, when it causes us to view the current world in a new way, or when it causes us to make a change in our lives.

Considering the poem in the year 2018, I was quickly reminded of a recent study of 20,000 people that revealed that young people (ages 18 to 24) are far more likely to report being lonely than the elderly (ages 72 and older). You could interpret the results of this study as either "young people tend to be lonely" or as "this particular generation of young people is especially isolated," but in either case, I think the reasons young people are having a hard time coming together are the same reasons that the narrator and his neighbor feel compelled to mend the wall - that is, fear of lifestyle incompatibility, fear of danger, etc. I guess some amount of ability to protect yourself is good (I am certainly glad I can lock my apartment door at night), but isolation can be dangerous too (as the article I linked points out, loneliness carries the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes per day). Sticking yourself in your room all day is unhealthy for other reasons as well - a different study found that indoor air contains 2 to 5 times as many pollutants as outdoor air.

I mean, obviously there is nothing in the poem about loneliness or being a shut-in, and I understand I am inventing stuff that isn't there, but that's kind of how I like to read poems.

Another thing that poem reminded me of is the following quote attributed to Mother Teresa:
"I want you to be concerned about your next door neighbor. Do you know your next door neighbor?"

What a "New Testament"-style viewpoint.

I could talk about how I might apply this poem to my own life but I don't think anyone is interested so I'll just keep it to myself.

Oh yeah, one other thing: when I first read the title, I interpreted the word "mending" as an adjective that describes "wall." I thought the title meant sometjing like "wall that mends." After reading the poem it's clear that the title is instead using "mending" as a verb with "wall" as the object, meaning "mending the wall," but I just wonder if there could be any validity to the way I read it initially? Frost could have easily cleared things up by calling the poem "mending the wall," and I'm puzzling over why he didn't. The most likely option seems to be, as Manifisto & FilthIncarnate suggested, that Frost likes to purposely obfuscate his poems and make them tough to read.

Splatmaster


HAIKOOLIGAN

Yesterday was the first time I'd read the poem, and my subconcious (read: insomnia-addled brain) would like to rescind my initial impression and state that the narrator meant something else entirely.

quote:

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.

What thing could send a frozen ground swell under a wall to disrupt it? Mother Nature could.

quote:

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,

Elves are associated with nature, mischievous sprites that can harrass humanity

quote:

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

And there we have it. Spring, a natural element (being a season) is the cause for the narrator's reflection on the mending of and the very nature of a wall.

Robert Frost is of the mindset that a wall is a man-made construct. Nature abhorrs a wall.

Therefore, walls are unnatural.

blaise rascal

And then there were two.

I agree, and I too observed the "nature vs. civilization" conflict in the poem.

Manifisto



Thanks, those are both good observations! I don't think they are at all contrary to other ways of seeing the poem; like much good art, the work should not be reduced to one interpretation or symbolic structure. In fact I believe the poem itself contains a warning against this kind of thinking:

quote:

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.

While this might be a reference to the crucifixion, I suspect it is also a pointed warning to the reader of the poem who dismantles the entire thing, stone by stone (i.e., word by word, symbol by symbol) in search of a specific meaning, a "rabbit," and in the process loses sight of the bigger picture - the "spririt" of the piece, the beauty of its imagery, the human element, and so on.

Splat, I agree, and I think that Frost is making a connection between nature and the more symbolic / doctrinal concepts I've mentioned. There's also a pun on his own name; the thing that makes the wall heave and buckle is frost, and there is a similarly disruptive spirit within Frost. If the wall is, in part, the poem, a careful arrangement of symbols designed to keep certain things hidden from first glance, the poet also wants, mischievously, to sabotage his own work, because he is actually after (to a certain extent) the destruction of words and layered meaning in order to make a more direct connection with the reader. In this sense, Frost proposes (I think) a primacy of nature and experience to manmade structures such as fences, walls, words, and poems (and even, perhaps, formal religion). They are a means to an end, creating a particular feeling within the reader. CDA talked about this in one of our other poetry threads, I think the Chinese poetry thread. When you say "nature abhors a wall," I think a concept that's similar in spirit is that "language is unnatural," and I get the sense that Frost agrees.

blaise, I like that, and I think the poem should feel personal to you. I see part of the point of the poem is that it's useful for the narrator to meet his neighbor in person and have him be not an abstraction but an actual person, in all his flaws. Loving your neighbor should not be simply a concept, it is a practice. I sense, I could be wrong about this, that the narrator is chiding his own snobbishness, or perhaps Frost is chiding himself, for seeing the neighbor as brutish and unenlightened when he is simply trying to do what he was taught, which is to respect tradition. The narrator wants him to challenge tradition somewhat, not for the sake of toppling it but instead to try to see what's behind it, for the neighbor's own good. But the narrator thinks this is most likely to occur if the neighbor arrives at the conclusion himself after being given hints, because it is clear the neighbor prefers knowledge that seems to come from inside himself:

quote:

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."

Although it is "his father's saying," he views himself as "having thought of it." This is why Frost wants to "put a notion in his head" and would "rather / He said it for himself." Again in one of our previous discussions, CDA talked about a concept of "securitas," a feeling arising when previously received knowledge seems to generate new knowledge, or a new understanding, that comes from within. I suspect Frost is alluding to something of this sort. The narrator wants to create a securitas-like feeling in the neighbor, and Frost wants to create a securitas-like feeling within us as we interpret and understand the poem. Note that the words the narrator wants to say to the neighbor include "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," which is exactly the same phrase that opens the poem. Which is perhaps the most direct evidence that the relationship between the narrator and the neighbor is a proxy for the relationship between Frost and the reader.

And feel free to talk about how the ideas relate to your own life! As long as things don't get too partisanly political, I don't think thoughts like this are at all off-topic and speaking for myself I find that kind of thing interesting.

Manifisto



blaise rascal posted:

Oh yeah, one other thing: when I first read the title, I interpreted the word "mending" as an adjective that describes "wall." I thought the title meant sometjing like "wall that mends." After reading the poem it's clear that the title is instead using "mending" as a verb with "wall" as the object, meaning "mending the wall," but I just wonder if there could be any validity to the way I read it initially? Frost could have easily cleared things up by calling the poem "mending the wall," and I'm puzzling over why he didn't. The most likely option seems to be, as Manifisto & FilthIncarnate suggested, that Frost likes to purposely obfuscate his poems and make them tough to read.

This seems astute to me. I've pointed out several ways in which the poem (arguably) employs double meanings, or perhaps more than two meanings. It would be very consistent with this overall artistic approach to have the title be multivalent. There is absolutely a literal sense in which it's about mending a physical wall. But I believe there is a more abstract sense in which the poem deals with "mending" as in the concept of making something better, putting something right. And there's a seeming paradox: how can a wall, something that divides, actually mend or bring things together? That kind of paradox I think is latent in several religious concepts:

* the paradox of the trinity: simultaneously three separate entities that are also one and indivisible
* the paradox of Christ, who was both man and god simultaneously
* the way in which Christ sacrificed himself to "mend" relations between humanity and god
* the fact that Christ actually died, which is for mortals a "wall" beyond which we cannot pass, but came back from death to proclaim life everlasting (in heaven)

There is also a sense that, although a wall between neighbors may be important for some purposes (where there are cows), it creates division, and a way to mend that symbolic division is for the wall to break down sometimes. This can be creative and productive because it lets the neighbors set aside their differences and see how they are related. But the wall is still needed, so after the destruction mends one kind of breach, the neighbors follow a ritual of putting the stones back in place, reinforcing to each other their commitment to appropriate boundaries and the reasons behind having a wall.

And finally, viewing the "wall" as the artifice of language (the poem, the bible), there is a sense in which achieving a better understanding, "mending" our comprehension, involves tearing down concepts and reconstructing them, perhaps in the same shape but understood differently.

Manifisto



Well I had another thought. First, let me apologize for the episodic nature of my contributions, I guess since I'm not writing an essay I'm sort of writing and thinking in spurts, and maybe that's of little interest to others.

Second, please note that I'm not trying to make this a religious discussion. I bring religion up purely because I think it's embedded in the poem, and I'm not trying to push any doctrinal views. I would hardly be the right person to do so.

As I was going through the potential Biblical references, it occurred to me that "here there are no cows" may also be a reference to the golden calf, symbolizing worship of a false god. The gist of the statement then becomes, "this is a conversation between believers / Christians, we are not disagreeing about faith itself but rather points of doctrine."

This made me wonder whether "Mending Wall" is indeed something significantly more subtle and obscure than even what I've been discussing. Maybe it is a coded message from him directed to another sect or branch or persuasion in Christianity about a point of doctrine, maybe a highly technical one. A little like one theoretical physicist sending a message to another theoretical physicist about a technical matter, in the form of a children's book. Most people wouldn't recognize the message and would simply think of it as a children's book, maybe a slightly strange one. Only the intended audience would get what was being discussed. (And by the way, if you are not familiar with The Annotated Alice, it describes something like that; Lewis Carroll was a mathematician who spiked his children's tales with references to obscure mathematical issues.)

I decided to Google a little about Frost's religious views. I thought this article, though brief, to be pretty interesting. It confirms that despite many biographers calling Frost atheist or agnostic, he was in fact highly interested in religion. I was particularly interested in the observation that "Robert Frost called himself an ‘Old Testament Christian’ . . . [w]hich meant he was really more focused on the Torah and the old Biblical stories." That's hardly what I would have expected from the apparent "New Testament" orientation I was describing.

And I guess this leads me to another thought, which I sort of like because it creates a significant bridge between the "psychological" interpretation and the "Biblical" interpretation I led off with.

Perhaps "Mending Wall" is really an illustration of an internal debate within Frost's own mind about the relative importance of the Old Testament vs. the New Testament. The "neighbor" and the "narrator" thus being dopplegangers, created for the purpose of a mental dialogue, but both of which represent aspects of Frost's beliefs. "Mending Wall" is thus perhaps about Frost's attempts to reconcile apparently differing approaches to faith/beliefs about faith, and what is being "mended" is Frost's doubt. What is particularly interesting, if this is so, is that perhaps the "narrator" is the part of Frost that he least agrees with, and he's taking that side of the debate in the poem out of a sense of mischief, as a "devil's advocate" sort of thing. Perhaps Frost really sides with the neighbor, and at the conclusion of the debate sticks to his core belief: "good fences make good neighbors," a commitment to Old Testament values. After all, that is how the poem closes, it is the "last word." With the caveat that maybe these convictions have been leavened somewhat by the dialogue, and he has a clearer understanding of the meaning of "good" fences - thus, the second repetition of this phrase is different from the first, because it comes form a more complete understanding.

cda


I don't agree with FI at all about Frost or this poem in particular. I don't think there is a veneer of accessibility beneath which this poem is secretly difficult; I think it's simple poem with a clear message. And I don't really care or think it is relevant whether he wrote the poem at one time or another.

In another sense, though, I agree with what I see as his assessment of Frost's character. I think Frost was a smug bastard, and this poem is an excellent example of him being one. It's a total setup, and never for one line are we really encouraged to see it from the neighbor's view. The narrator (Frost) is the clear winner. The poet doesn't really exercise his negative capability here.

But why shouldn't a poem be smug? Frost totally owns his dumbass neighbor. He demonstrates his facility at building the wall while simultaneously showing himself superior to the entire enterprise.

In this poem, we're encouraged to think about two aspects of walls. One, I think has been fairly covered by the discussion here: walls as boundaries between things. But walls are also architectural constructions. If, as in this poem, they're built without mortar, it takes some art to find the right stones to fill the gaps and to make them balance; it's about as apt a metaphor as I can think of for the process of writing in iambic pentameter, which this poem is in. The meter is especially loose one with lots of feminine endings, as is appropriate to a rough-hewn wall. So yeah, it's a pretty English 101 type observation to make, but I think that the poem itself is the wall, swelling with the potential of a chaos that never quite emerges.

These dudes should get into a fistfight but they don't. They stay good neighbors. Then Frost goes home, and safe behind his sturdy wall of words renders his judgment.

Splatmaster


HAIKOOLIGAN

Manifisto posted:

Perhaps "Mending Wall" is really an illustration of an internal debate within Frost's own mind about the relative importance of the Old Testament vs. the New Testament.

I was thinking along those same lines, or perhaps if the wall is metaphorical for religion in general, and the irony would be

quote:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

Let's suppose that "Something" is God. Then, let's only take those lines that specifically have the word "wall" or "walled" in it, and line them up:

quote:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
There where it is we do not need the wall:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,


"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," is written twice. I believe this is important.

If we consider religion as a wall, a physical construct to contain or keep in (religious doctrine in the form of a specific text, for example) it may seem ironic for God to not love that wall, but if we consider the following

quote:

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.

and remember that God doesn't build walls, WE do- then perhaps the "mending" means seeing past the walls we build and remembering that God was the basis for the wall in the first place.

Why use doctrine to keep out people unintentionally, and therefore potentially away from God?

Perhaps Frost is questioning those parts of religion that keep people away from God, because the wall is too imposing to allow them to see the forest for the apple and pine trees. Perhaps Frost is questioning religion itself, favoring no specific religion, after all he mentions "spells" and Elves, things traditionally shunned by the conservative church as "bad".

I'm enjoyingthis thread and your insights, Mani. Thank you for it!

BYOB fun all year long! Sigs by: Manifisto and Vanisher, awesome BYOB people!!

cda


lol

cda


Here's a much less crazy and imo much more interesting -- and more positive than mine -- take from Zev Trachtenberg, in Philosophy and Literature, Volume 21, Number 1, April 1997

quote:

The neighbor and the narrator thus have opposing views of property. The neighbor speaks for the value of property divisions; in contrast, by suggesting that the Spring thaw is the “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the narrator seems (at least at first) to attack property as an affront to nature. It is tempting, therefore, to attribute to the narrator a kind of romantic rejection of property—in favor, perhaps, of a vision of community in which people share the land communally. But a closer reading of the poem reveals the narrator’s position to be much more complex. For, we can see, the narrator understands that property and community are not necessarily opposing concepts. Rather, for him, they are linked by the fact that property divisions must be actively maintained, and this activity can be the basis of community.

The most obvious indication that the narrator is not opposed to property is that it is he who summons the neighbor to the yearly chore of mending the wall. We shall return to his description of their chore momentarily. It is worth noting first that the narrator is not concerned only with breaches to the wall caused by natural forces. He refers also to “the work of hunters” who leave “not one stone on a stone” in flushing out their prey. These gaps the narrator repairs himself. That is, the narrator personally upholds property divisions in the face of the hunters’ use of the land as a commons. By no means does he stand for the communal use of land; he is firmly committed to maintaining the division of land into private property.

What, then, is the value of the wall to the narrator? He understands as well as the neighbor that the wall lacks a utilitarian purpose; it is he who reminds the neighbor of this fact. The neighbor, as we have seen, responds to this fact with the ideological justification that by separating them the wall makes them good neighbors. The narrator responds to it lightheartedly, by conceiving of the shared activity of mending the wall as “just another kind of outdoor game / One on a side.” Because the wall has no practical function, that is, the only justification for the effort of maintaining it must be in the nature of the effort itself. What is important for the narrator is the playful sharing of an activity with his neighbor. Consider his description of their replacing the stones on the wall: “We have to use a spell to make them balance / ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’” Here he represents the chore both as a joint enterprise, and as one understood to be justified by the doing of it rather than by the result. Thus, as he says, mending the wall is like a game, in which the opponents are in a broader sense partners in a common undertaking.

In seeing the practice of affirming property divisions as a game, the narrator presents property as a human convention. And, as he witnesses every Spring, this convention sits uneasily on the land. We noted above that the narrator sees in the forces that cast down the wall nature’s rejection of the division of land into property. But the narrator also sees in these natural forces the occasion for cooperation with his neighbor. The vulnerability of the wall to natural destruction explains why it constitutes an ongoing opportunity for engagement between his neighbor and himself. Nature tends to obliterate the marks of property; the narrator grasps the effort to reestablish what is their own as an opportunity for human connection. Hence, for him, it is this chance to affirm community in the face of nature that makes mending the wall worthwhile. Recall that he fixes the gaps made by other people himself. By contrast, responding to the forces associated with the land calls for communal activity, carried out and celebrated in the yearly ceremony of mending the wall.

It turns out, then, that the narrator sees a spark of truth in his neighbor’s slogan that good fences make good neighbors. But, for him, it is not the simple existence of the fence that does the trick. Rather, to paraphrase Richard Poirier, the narrator sees that while the mere presence of good fences might not make good neighbors, the shared activity of mending fences can. Sharing the chore of mending the wall can transform owners of adjacent properties into neighbors indeed. In the poem that very activity brings the two men together, raising the possibility at least that the narrator can engage the neighbor in the kind of communal interaction the latter seems to disvalue. But we must follow the narrator’s position a step further. For, to the extent that he is motivated to “wear fingers rough with handling” stones simply by the chance to enjoy his neighbor’s company, we can say that the effort of sustaining their human connection provides the opportunity for the men to reestablish what is their own. The wall stays mended because mending it is the expression of communal attachments. For the narrator, then, the truth of the neighbor’s slogan is in its dialectical opposite: in reality, it is good neighbors who make good fences.

Splatmaster


HAIKOOLIGAN

cda posted:

Here's a much less crazy and imo much more interesting -- and more positive than mine -- take from Zev Trachtenberg, in Philosophy and Literature, Volume 21, Number 1, April 1997

"Good neighbors make good fences". I like that.

BYOB fun all year long! Sigs by: Manifisto and Vanisher, awesome BYOB people!!

cda


And this is from a really cool paper that does something I love: take a field completely unrelated to literature (in this case, the history of fences and laws related to them), in apply it to a particular work of literature which utilizes that unrelated field as part of a metaphor. Mending Wall: Playing the Game of Neighborhood Ordering, by Lindsay Nash, from the Yale journal of law & the humanities, Winter 2009.

quote:

If, as Mending Wall suggests, something doesn't love a wall, why does the historical ubiquity of material and metaphorical walls suggest otherwise? Even with the growing sense that the "something" so hostile to wall-making may be right, the Mending Wall narrator persists in "seting the wall between [himself and his neighbor] once again," declining to actually end the tradition of wall-building between neighbors. Throughout the world, societies continue to erect fences and walls, following their forefathers and traditions "like … old-stone savages armed." Perhaps something doesn't love a wall, but something else, something perhaps more powerful does.

The endurance of the fence-making tradition, however, does not necessarily legitimate either neighbor's claim. In fact, patterns emerge across community fence practices, revealing distinctions in fence-making based upon specific characteristics of the community, and suggesting that good fences may mark, but do not make, good neighbors. Good neighbors, however, may make good fences, and making good fences requires good neighbors. Tautological? Perhaps, but understanding the language of fences helps explain why neighborly divisions have endured and why these structures of division may actually be unifying. The title of Mending Wall suggests that the subject of this poem is not the wall itself, but instead the act of "mending wall." Understanding the poem in the context of fencing practice explains the long-held reverence for Mending Wall as a paradigmatic American poem and allows the reader to align boundary structures within the historical narrative of American identity.

This paper identifies various ways in which fences function and explores how fence practice has interacted with a dynamic narrative of national identity. It then sets out an interpretive framework in which fences may be read and demonstrates how this language may be a tool for enhancing communication between neighbors. Part I analyzes the multiple and concurrent ways that walls between neighbors function: at once and varyingly serving to protect, enclose, exclude, celebrate, and, in some senses, unify. Looking more broadly, Part II considers how these walls have functioned within property-building and community-ordering schemes through three distinct eras of American nation-building. Part III then explores the contemporary roles of fences as evidenced by choices in fence construction to understand how physical characteristics send messages as to the fence's meaning and role. Lastly, Part IV applies these lessons to existing questions of boundary-creation and offers a conceptual framework for building good fences and creating good neighborships.

Manifisto



Splatmaster posted:

If we consider religion as a wall, a physical construct to contain or keep in (religious doctrine in the form of a specific text, for example) it may seem ironic for God to not love that wall, but if we consider the following


and remember that God doesn't build walls, WE do- then perhaps the "mending" means seeing past the walls we build and remembering that God was the basis for the wall in the first place.

Why use doctrine to keep out people unintentionally, and therefore potentially away from God?

This is really a good point, thank you. I have to say though, I am pretty floored by the possibility that the entire poem is written from a perspective that Frost does not agree with. CDA, I have to say, that possibility does put him into the "sneaky bastard" category, in that view the whole thing is indeed a setup designed to make you agree with the opposite of what Frost thinks.

A more strict-minded Old Testament Christian would say, I'm speculating, "well actually, God built this wall (religion) and therefore your own views about what is being walled in, what is being walled out, etc. are irrelevant. God is unknowably more wise than mortals, you cannot impose your limited understanding on his creation nor is it your place to question it. Don't ask "why" the wall exists, have faith that it is consistent with the divine purpose."

Manifisto



cda posted:

And this is from a really cool paper that does something I love: take a field completely unrelated to literature (in this case, the history of fences and laws related to them), in apply it to a particular work of literature which utilizes that unrelated field as part of a metaphor. Mending Wall: Playing the Game of Neighborhood Ordering, by Lindsay Nash, from the Yale journal of law & the humanities, Winter 2009.

This is cool and regardless of what Frost may have been getting at it's a really interesting topic. I mean, of course it's an oversimplification to say "fences good" or "fences bad" and that's part of the frustration I had with the comments on the NYT article, many people were taking really literal and simplified views of what fences are and the purposes they serve. Which I suppose actually illustrated the point the article was making, it's just sad to see, though predictable.

As to the Trachtenberg, I do think that the narrator's perspective is that the activity of wall-mending is more important than the wall itself, although even the narrator seems to feel that the wall can have an important role in certain circumstances - again, "where there are cows," whether you want to take "cows" literally or metaphorically. But to be honest I'm now wondering if the entire poem is the opposite of what it seems, and Frost actually thinks the wall itself is the (relatively more) important thing.

Manifisto



And if you continue that line of thought, the thing that "does not love a wall" is, well, Satanic/evil. And the narrator's apples are temptations to sin rather than virtuous knowledge, and the neighbor is right to wall himself off from being tempted by the easy/accessible/flexible interpretations that the narrator offers.

Robot Made of Meat


Manifisto posted:

And if you continue that line of thought, the thing that "does not love a wall" is, well, Satanic/evil. And the narrator's apples are temptations to sin rather than virtuous knowledge, and the neighbor is right to wall himself off from being tempted by the easy/accessible/flexible interpretations that the narrator offers.

Indeed, it could be argued that walls represent cosmos, and lack of walls would represent chaos.


Thanks to Vanisher for the sig!

Manifisto



Robot Made of Meat posted:

Indeed, it could be argued that walls represent cosmos, and lack of walls would represent chaos.

Well said. Honestly if you view the entire poem as being spoken by the serpent, it totally works.

Manifisto



I'd like to recommend, at least as food for thought, an analysis I found online. It's a doctoral dissertation, so take that as you will in terms of its insight/authority. In particular, I'm focused on Chapter Two, starting on p. 21. Although it examines the poem from a Pythagorean perspective, rather than a Biblical one, it does contain an intriguing argument that Frost may be subtly portraying the neighbor as displaying virtues that the narrator does not possess.

Behind His Father's Saying: Robert Frost's Wisdom Tradition by James H. Altman

The chapter is too long to summarize neatly, but it does propound the notion of a tightly constructed and intentionally hidden metaphorical structure in the poem. Altman says, echoing FilthIncarnate, "By his own admission Frost saw meanings in his poetry that he did not believe everyone would be able to find. Neither did he think it a good idea to make such meanings obvious enough where everyone could find them."

As to the dynamic between the neighbors, Altman suggests that the narrator's conception of the neighbor as unenlightened may stem from the narrator's failure to do the intellectual work required to understand the neighbor's words:

quote:

[I]t is far more likely that the neighbor "only says" what he does because the maxim contains more meaning than might be indicated at first glance. The neighbor, then, has more on his mind than does the speaker.

quote:

Here we find yet another piece of plausible evidence as to why the neighbor in "Mending Wall," keeps himself so tightlipped around the speaker. He does not want to reveal too much of his mental process to a person he considers unable or unwilling to understand him.

quote:

As I believe the neighbor is a Pythagorean I contend that he will not give out the information the speaker desires because the speaker has not proven himself worthy of possessing it. After all, as far as the neighbor is concerned, the speaker is just playing around, not to mention the fact the speaker tells us as much himself.

Altman acknowledges that there are competing interpretations, and that the far more accessible perspective of the narrator does portray the neighbor in an unflattering light. But put together FilthIncarnate's observations that Frost liked to be obscure and secretive with the more sympathetic portrait of the neighbor, and I think there's a good argument to be made that the neighbor is doing something far more "Frostian," speaking minimally in a way that has to be carefully (and gravely, not frivolously) pondered to be understood.

How this dovetails with a Biblical interpretation of the poem is I suppose a matter for debate / discussion. I really haven't come across any Biblical interpretations of the poem yet, although I can't say I've searched that hard. It does seem though that many people thought of Frost's early work as not particularly religious, with religious themes creeping in only later in his career. But, if as FilthIncarnate suggests, Frost's "later work" was written at the same time as his earlier work, there may be a considerably stronger argument for seeking out coded religious themes in ostensibly earlier poems.

I will say, though, that I find it intriguing that the narrator who seems very "Christ-like" on first read (as I hope I've made a case for) could validly appear much more sinister--offering temptation, short cuts, lack of rigor--from the neighbor's point of view. Indeed it might not be a stretch to suggest that the poem tempts the reader, serpent-like, with a false interpretation that the narrator is the more enlightened and virtuous.

Maybe one could call this "obvious" . . . to me it seems pretty subtle, not to mention rather inhospitable to the reader, if it has any validity.

Manifisto



Working thesis of the poem's hidden point:

careless interpretation of the New Testament leads to sin and perdition

e:

Apparently Frost was quite an rear end in a top hat.

quote:

Frost disapproved of the way that the New Deal legislated charity, suspecting that Eleanor Roosevelt had hoodwinked her husband into such an unmanly scheme: "Mercy to the weak is handicapping the strong." He distrusted any government built around "the poor the unpretentious the ineffectual and the whipped." He had a Nietzschean distaste for the New Testament as a "poor man's book," preferring what he took to be the hard-headed wisdom of the Old Testament prophets, "who can manage to bear it that there must be good and bad losers."

quote:

He speculated in the privacy of these notebooks that maybe slavery wasn't such a bad thing, as long as race was left out of it. "The mistake of the south," he wrote, "was in not enslaving of their own race." And wasn't welfare, he asked, with its exchange of money for good behavior, a form of slavery anyway? "Let us not gag at words."

https://newrepublic.com/article/626...-darker-darkest

ee: In light of all this I feel like I better understand what FilthIncarnate was saying:

FilthIncarnate posted:

You ought not to give Frost to children; it's like giving them Halloween candy filled with drugs and razor blades.

Manifisto fucked around with this message at May 18, 2018 around 17:22

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Manifisto



Since people probably aren't following this thread anyway, I guess bumping it won't hurt anyone? I apologize, I think it's turned into mostly me writing about stuff that's not necessarily of much interest to others.

For those who care: I came across another piece I found interesting. It's not an analysis of the poem per se, it is a doctrinal work rather than literary criticism, but it uses the poem as a jumping off point. The types of things the paper says strike me as very possibly the types of things underlying the purportedly "backwards" neighbor's speech and behavior. Also the paper presents some precedents for discussions of "boundary" within Christianity and I'm guessing that Frost would have been aware of, and possibly deliberately referencing, some of them (given his erudition and proclivities).

https://repository.divinity.edu.au/...%28PJBR%29_.pdf

The reading I'm advancing--less out of certainty than to fully explore it as a possibility--is that the neighbor, and implicitly Frost, is reacting against the sort of notion that is discussed and rejected in Dr. Starling's paper:

quote:

Perhaps, one might argue, the time has come for a sort of boundaryless Christianity, in which there
is a sense of belonging and a chance to explore, without the need to draw lines of belief and behaviour
that divide people into the categories of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. What if tearing down the boundaries
created exactly the kind of proximity and interaction in which the mission of the gospel could flourish?
What if an approach of that sort turned out to be not a brand new idea, a way of accommodating to
postmodern times, but a closer approximation to the way things were done by Jesus himself and among
his first followers?

I think we're meant to understand that the poem's narrator is advocating this type of thing, as a way of interpreting the New Testament (although this is not entirely fair, the narrator is not exactly saying "tear down the wall," he is employing a more subtle strategy of questioning its purpose and perhaps trying to sow doubt about its utility in certain contexts). Starling responds with the notion that "fences" / boundaries are indeed necessary, and devotes much of the paper to discussing what kinds of boundaries are "good":

quote:

The conditions of our time are not a reason for the church to tear down all the fences of
membership, doctrinal definition and communal discipline; nor are they a reason to wall ourselves in and
hide from contact with the surrounding world. What the church’s holiness-in-mission requires is neither a
fortress nor a boundaryless blur, but the kind of “good fences” that genuinely assist the followers of Jesus
to be “good neighbours” to the people around them who do not know Christ.

What kind of fences are those? Good fences are fences that are drawn as a circumference around
the indispensable centre of the saving, ruling presence of Christ; fences that do not divide believer from
believer but accurately represent the distinctions and disciplines of confession and conduct that mark out
those who follow Jesus from those who do not know him; fences that make explicit the common,
covenantal commitment of a community of believers to live under those disciplines together; and fences
that allow for the missional involvement of God’s people in the world and the hospitable welcome within
the activities of the church of not-yet-Christians who are in the process of learning Christ.

Honestly it would be an amusing irony if the author of this paper was using what he mistakenly thought was a secular poem to make a religious argument. "Wow," I can imagine Dr. Starling thinking, "it's amazing how well this metaphor fits my thesis!"

FWIW I was not entirely surprised to see this was written by an Australian. For whatever reason, it was when traveling in Australia that I first heard a religious attack on "the evils of deconstructionism," as well as a more balanced public radio thought piece explaining why some Christians believe that innovation and flexibility in interpreting doctrine - postmodern approaches to scripture and the like - is an existential threat to their Church, which depends on there being a single correct way to read scripture with the Church as the keeper and arbiter of that interpretation. Despite the prevalence of Christianity in the U.S., relatively intellectual/highbrow religious discussions of this sort tend not to get wide coverage (although I'm sure plenty of it occurs if you know where to look). I imagine Frost would take this as a sign of how lowbrow, populist Christianity has infected the U.S. like a cancer and needs to be walled off, given the rather noxious views revealed in his personal papers. Or maybe it means new world Christians of Frost's stripe are actually rather effective with their wall-building.

I don't think Frost's point (or what I am speculating to be his point) is quite the same as Dr. Starling's. I suspect Frost is talking less about the boundaries between Christians and non-Christians--although this is probably part of the package--and more about modes of thought, conduct, and communication within the faith. As mentioned earlier, I take that as potentially the gravamen of the "here there are no cows" comment - "we can talk freely and debate and question doctrine without restraint because we're all Christians." Frost, I suspect, is (like the neighbor) taking the view that "there are reasons to be circumspect even when we talk among ourselves, partly because outsiders looking at our debates will misinterpret, but also because even within the faith there are people who badly misunderstand things and will take foolish positions; it is not necessarily worth arguing with someone who doesn't understand what is being argued about." Yet I do think Frost has something of the narrator in him, and something of the perverse/mischievous desire to at least test the boundaries and to create conceptual "walls" of a very curious sort - sufficient to protect/hide meaning from the clueless (by which Frost means most readers) but permeable to those who have the background and mindset to appreciate his points. Honestly the poem might be best read as a coded representation of his own internal debate about how forthcoming to be about his true views in his work.

In any event, if I'm totally wrong about there being a Biblical undercurrent to the poem, I guess there's a tiny bit of comfort in the thought that I was not the only person to see a useful comparison. (Actually the poem does get used in sermons a decent amount, according to Google, but often only in passing and in very general ways.)

But to back up a minute, even if you discount the Biblical aspect, I do think there's a very plausible argument that the poem is covertly arguing against easy and accessible interpretation, against sharing knowledge/wisdom too freely - and also against reaching out for knowledge and interpretation that may be of suspect provenance. The Altman paper makes a decent case for that via its "Pythagorean" perspective. So maybe Frost is constructing a wall of metaphor and indirection around truths / insights of a different nature, perhaps having to do with poetry, or aesthetics, or the very nature of truth, or spirituality that is not exclusively "Christian." Given his apparent predilections, it doesn't seem at all impossible that he has coded his true meaning even more deeply, and that apparent references to the Bible and Christianity are themselves a red herring, a more subtle trap for those who have peeled back the first few layers.

However, if he is indeed a Christian, even an old-school Christian, it is hard to imagine him placing something above God in importance. Old Testament or New, the primary Commandment is the primacy of God.

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