Mending Fences

Posted by on Sep 20, 2013 in Language usage | Comments Off on Mending Fences

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost wrote in one of the most misunderstood poems in the English language. “Misunderstood” because all that people remember is the response of the thoughtless neighbor who “will not go behind his father’s saying…” which is “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The neighbor doesn’t come off very favorably in the poem. Frost compares him to an “old-age savage…” who “moves in darkness” because he will not go beyond the jingoism he learned from his father.

In the never ending debate over immigration policy, some politicians play the role of the ignorant neighbor, perhaps thinking that a literary quote (“Good fences make good neighbors”) makes their prejudice sound better. It doesn’t. Instead, it  highlights the fact that they never read the poem, or, if they did, they missed the part where Frost wrote: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out.”