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Commentary: Frost is often misunderstood

Visitors—I was one of them--to Robert Frost’s New Hampshire farm in the mid-1990’s--and most likely, today also-- soon find out from the wonderful docents that the stone wall that inspired one of his most-quoted poems is still out back; that the Frosts had a two-seater indoor “outhouse” and instituted exercise sessions for their kids in the barn in winter; and that the rivulet that a highway now crosses nearby is the west-running brook in still another poem.

They also find out that Frost’s in-laws were concerned that he seemed to just want to write poetry and so they gave him the farm so he could at least support his family. If someone had been writing a book like Outliers then, Frost could have been included.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a line from Frost was misunderstood in a local newspaper column that quoted, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Alas, out of context, that is not what Frost said or meant, even though the line has the kind of brevity and cute wording that makes it all too easy to pass along.

But here’s what really is going on (see excerpt just below). Frost asks his neighbor, “Why do they make good neighbors?” and then answers it by saying in several ways that it isn’t so. There aren’t cows here and so there is nothing to wall out, he notes. Besides, he says, he has apple trees and his neighbor has pine trees, so their properties are easy to tell apart. That’s why mending the wall constitutes only a sort of game each year, because where they are mending it, the wall isn’t necessary.

And there are deeper symbolic reasons for questioning unnecessary fences—here the kind of stone wall where stones fall because “Something there is that doesn't love a wall.” Frost wants to know what is being walled out or walled in, especially where there is no purpose to it. And he comments on the darkness that envelops his neighbor—not from the trees surrounding him, but from the shadow of outmoded thinking. Frost questions to get at truths, but his neighbor doesn’t.

An excerpt from Mending Wall

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 offence….

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."

This is not to say that columnists can’t quote the line “Good fences make good neighbors.” Just don’t say that is what Frost himself believed. In sometimes Talmudic fashion, poets and other authors have various characters explore conflicting views
enroute to forming an opinion.

Linda Chalmer Zemel retired as adjunct assistant professor of English at SUNY Monroe Community College and now teaches at SUNY Buffalo State College. She also writes the Buffalo Alternative Medicine column.

Contact Linda at

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