Many people interested in the proposed border wall have stated “Robert Frost said, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” Robert Frost didn’t say the line, he wrote it. A character in Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” said it, and if you read that poem, you will find it unlikely that Frost agreed with the statement.
The poem is about two New England landowners who meet in early spring to repair the wall between their properties. The soil is rocky and hard to grow crops on, and stones to make a wall are always handy. The speaker in the poem explains why the wall needs to be repaired:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
That sends the frozen groundswell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
He notes that there are apple trees on his side of the wall and pine trees on his neighbor’s side, so there really isn’t a need for a wall, as there would be if his land were a cow pasture.
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.”
The first speaker tries to understand that comment by asking, “Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it/Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.”
The other man makes no real reply: “He will not go beyond his father’s saying/And he likes having thought of it so well/He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’”
The neighbor, if he actually had been thinking, might have pointed out that fences are helpful to surveyors, tax assessors and people trying to find something, but he doesn’t, which reveals that “Mending Wall” is not about its announced subject but about an attitude that shuts out new ideas and defends itself by repeating mottos that are half thought-out or not thought about at all. This point is much more important than an argument about fixing a wall.
People who quote such slogans are using a technique that was the way you proved things in the Middle Ages, when very few people could read or write, and books, the source of much knowledge, were scarce. Someone who could read would repeat: “Galen says this, Aristotle says this, Sophocles says this; they’re famous, so they must be right.” Now, few people choose to read or write in this world of sound bites, tweets and emojis, so the best they can do to prop up their viewpoint is to quote a poem by a famous person, which they haven’t read, ignoring the context in which the line appeared.
Perhaps people coming to this country fleeing hunger, collapsing economies and governments, and violence and terrorism, both state-sponsored and drug-related, and seeking basic human rights don’t belong here, but those who think so had better not use a poet to back their play — those guys are sneaky.