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The proverb “Good fences make good neighbors” has been around for a couple of centuries in different forms. One place it can be found is in Poor Richard’s Almanack by Benjamin Franklin. His version is: “Love your neighbor; yet don’t pull down your hedge.”

It’s interesting that the specific wording of the proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors” is fairly modern. It comes from Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall from 1914. The poem centers around this concept and questions whether it’s true or not. Here’s the poem…

Mending Wall

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 outdoor 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.”

Listen to an MP3 of Mending Wall as read by Alan Davis-Drake for LibriVox

Listen to a different MP3 of Mending Wall as read by Teresa Montgomery for Librivox

The narrator of the poem is annoyed by his neighbor’s insistence that there has to be a fence between them. If only his neighbor would get beyond his father’s beliefs – originating in an old proverb – and reconsider his thinking.

What’s ironic is that Frost coined the new wording of a proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors”, while questioning the very wisdom behind it!

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This artilce was posted on Friday, September 18th, 2009 at 11:43 am and is filed under Authors, Benjamin Franklin, Countries & Cultures, English, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, Languages, Mama Lisa, Mending Wall, Poetry, Poets, Poor Richard's Almanack, Proverbs, Robert Frost, USA. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

15 Responses to “Robert Frost’s Proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.””

  1. catherine meehan Says:

    Robert Frost, ever the mischief maker,Something there is that doesn’t like a wall the “something’ of course, being FROST, as in Robert Frost (freezing, frozen, ice, etc.)…just coincidental of course. What a master. The sly dog nudges us again and almost gives it away in the 2nd line, “The frozen ground swell” I know I’m not the first to catch his wink.

  2. Snow with school : Betty's Blog - Timely Teacher Talk Says:

    [...] Good fences make good neighbors [...]

  3. Joseph D. Adissi Says:

    Rob is being ironic. I believe frost wishes to convey the idea of the wrong fence will not be conducive to or neighborly as this is what will alienate one another as boundaries tend to do. Should there have to be a fence at all, respect for your neighbor would or could honor their wishes. A good fence or an understanding.

  4. Gus Says:

    And yet, Frost leaves it ambiguous when he says “I have come after them and made repair…” and by being the one who calls his neighbor to come and repair the wall. I had a professor who took this as evidence that Frost didn’t like walls (and mentioned your very perceptive point Catherine Meehan), but reluctantly thought they were necessary.

  5. Jeff Says:

    I think you miss the real point. It is the act of repairing the wall that forces the neighbors to work together. It is this communal act of repairing that which seperates them, that forces the human interaction, thus making them better neighbors. Frost doesn’t like walls, but jointly maintaining the wall is its own benefit. Thus, “Good fences” (those that are kept in good order) make good neighbors” (neighbors who communicate, work together, etc.)

  6. Flynn Says:

    Frost and the narrator are not the same person. It is indeed ironic that the narrator criticizes his neighbor (saying he looks “like an old-stone savage” and “will not go behind his father’s saying”) despite having the same attitudes. After all, how does the narrator appear to the neighbor when holding the stones on his side? Presumably he looks like the same savage. If the narrator wants to let the wall fall apart (as he implies), why does he take the initiative to invite the neighbor to repair it? The narrator claims to be against the wall but doesn’t see his own contribution to its continued existence. Also, perhaps his neighbor is more open-minded than the narrator assumes; the narrator doesn’t know because he chooses not to ask.

    Frost’s brilliant writing makes the irony available for us readers to enjoy, but it’s not as though Frost “messed up” by creating a contradiction.

  7. Derek G. Day Says:

    In some jurisdictions at least, neighbors share the legal responsibility, and thus the cost, of maintaining fences. A good fence both represents and supports the fundamental equality of neighbors, while protecting the separateness and independence of each.

    A “bad fence”, on the other hand, might one-sidedly protect one neighbor against the other, maintaining and symbolizing inequalities or even inequities. The sole owner of such a fence is protected as an insider, while those outside have no share of ownership or protection.

    The maintenance of “good fences” is thus part of the responsibility of citizenship. It maintains the fabric of the community.

    Also, as for Flynn’s suggestion that “Frost and the narrator are not the same person”, this would never have a occurred to me. I may be naive, but I see Frost as someone who reads his own experience to us through his poetry. It is because the poet so thoroughly examines an experience is complex and many-layered, that successive thoughts may seem “contradictory” or “ironic”.

    I was searching on the line “Good fences make good neighbors”, and I found this site for the first time. Thanks for a stimulating discussion!

  8. helen Says:

    cool

  9. william easton Says:

    Frost doesn’t give us the final answer as to the value of walls. It may depend on the attitude of the neighbors who share it.
    During this political season and the near unanimity of agreement among the GOP candidates about the construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, I am reminded of the earlier Republican who requested the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall
    I live at the Canadian border where fortunately there had been no talk of walls along the longest peaceful border in the world.

  10. John Says:

    Read carefully…

    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.

    Beneath the thin veneer we are not always friendly and we need to have our boundaries defined. Good Fences make good neighbors.

  11. Fence Or Barricade? | The Kindness Kronicles Says:

    [...] fences make good neighbors.” – taken from Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall“.  I thought of this quote as I took a walk through my neighborhood today, an older [...]

  12. Bob Wilson Says:

    I came upon this site as did Derek, and every point made here all seem to have validity. I see Mending Wall, being singular, is as telling as the multiple takeaways we get from this poem. Yes, Frost is sly; ironic; contradictory; complex; challenging; and so much more in just one page of poetry.
    I’m most challenged as if he said of me, “If I could put a notion in his head:”. Now I wonder how/why “gaps even two can pass abreast”? Is his answer, “at spring mending-time…Spring is the mischief in me”.

  13. Jack Says:

    “Good” fences do indeed help make good neighbors. A “good” fence is a line of mutual respect and understanding with minimal ambiguities. A “good” fence is a mutually-agreed upon boundary, with implied and explicit responsibilities for both sides to maintain and respect the boundary. A “good” fence shows no partiality. And the building of a “good” fence creates a SANCTITY that marks every human boundary, physical or psychological, of stones and mortar, or simply an invisible line in the sand. In the honor of that sanctity, the neighbors may indeed create a spiritual relationship, an I-THOU bonding, that transcends all fences and walls, in which each can discover the meaning of Christ’s last command: Love thy neighbor as thyself.

  14. John Says:

    A good fence is a demarcation between neighbors that is understood and agreed. It means that nobody can overstep their property and take a liberty. It maintains the status quo. Without the fence there would be anarchy.
    States have boundaries defined by fences, walls, ditches and even land mines! The adjacent states must be clear about where their land stops to avoid conflict leading to war. In Utopia there would not be the need for fences. Fences are necessary in the real world.

  15. Bruce Bessell Says:

    Not all fences are physical. When, as in the poem, the neighbors build the fence together, each establishing his own boundary, it can not help but be a good fence.

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