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Fences, walls, neighbors ignite heated questions about society


Sanda Baucom Hight

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” writes Robert Frost in his famous poem, “Mending Wall.”

In the poem, as you remember, the narrator and his neighbor meet each spring to mend the wall between their property. The neighbor believes that the wall must be mended each year to make each person’s land secure. He continues to say, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The poem’s speaker questions why they need a wall in the first place.  He wants to know what he was “walling in or walling out.”  He says that year after year, the natural surroundings make the wall fall a little, that something “sends the frozen-ground-swell under it/ And spills the upper boulders in the sun.”

The neighbors go on mending the wall, but the speaker is not convinced of its necessity.

Since its writing in 1914, this poem has prompted debate about how walls, fences, barriers — both literal and figurative — affect relationships with others. The poem is often taught in middle school, high school and college, and it can be understood on multiple levels. It seems that the debate will be ongoing for a long time.

Frost’s poem does not resolve the debate about the necessity of fences and walls. It does, however, propose a series of questions. Consider reading Frost’s poem again, and then think about these questions surrounding the larger debate.

• Do good fences really make good neighbors?

• Do fences and walls alienate us from our neighbors?

• When we build barriers, what are we actually walling in or walling out?

• When are barriers good? When are they harmful?

• What metaphorical walls exist in society?

• Do some walls and fences cause unnecessary tension between neighbors?

• What are some actual fences in our own lives that have solved problems?

• What are some actual walls in our own lives that have done more harm than good?

• On a larger scale, what are some barriers that separate us from cultures around the world?

• Are there examples of agreed-upon walls or fences that lead to harmony?

• How can harmful barriers be broken down?   

• Does hanging on to walls and fences mean that we are stuck in the past and do not want to change? 

• Are walls a natural or an unnatural phenomenon?

In “Mending Wall,” the neighbor wants to mend the wall that separates his property from his neighbor because his father had taught him to do that. He wants to honor his father’s teaching and hang on to the past more than he wants change his way of thinking about walls.

We can use Frost’s poem to think about famous walls through history, what their purpose was, how long they lasted and why they might have been torn down or preserved.

Think about the Great Wall of China, for example. It has been rebuilt and repaired numerous times, yet it still stands as a monument to history.

Walls, fences, barriers — let them stand if they have a clear and positive purpose; otherwise get rid of them.

Finally, one of the most famous wall quotations of all still resonates: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” — President Ronald Reagan, 1987.

Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County.