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Guest Opinion

Rebutting Herald columnist’s take on Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”


In the June 29 edition of the Herald, Kathryn Finegan Clark’s By the Way: “Ideological fences might as well be canyons” appropriates Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” to fit a ideologically driven worldview. First she alludes to the various fences she sees springing up in the area, concluding they are the result of a political chasm, or canyon. But people are more complicated than such simple suggestions. We are no more split politically than during other times in our history, and Clark usurps a great piece of literature to dig her own imagined canyon with the pen of Frost.

The narrator is “laid back,” “comfortable,” and “trusting.” The neighbor “needs a barrier,” “expects conflict,” and “wants to avoid it.” The former, open minded and the latter, closed minded. In our age of tolerance, we are meant to like the narrator’s open mindedness, but the open mindedness is naive. His neighbor’s pines, if allowed to spread into his apple orchard, would crowd his trees and block the sun they need.

Clark even attempts a bit of historicism to claim that since the poem was published in 1914, the coming World War had influenced Frost. If the poem was published in 1914, its writing began well before the outbreak of war. Frost, more likely, would have been concerned with the creeping progressivism demanding changes to the American system. President Wilson openly said the American Constitution was antiquated, and Frost, a conservative, would not have agreed.

The juxtaposition between the ignorance of the narrator and his neighbor, who may also be ignorant to the reason for the wall and who repeats, “Good fences make good neighbors,” has, like Frost, a respect for tradition. “Mending Wall” is a poetical projection of an idea first illustrated in 1908, in G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a writer and a book with which Frost would have been quite familiar. Chesterton explains that when one comes to a fence in the woods, one should not tear it down until the reason behind it is known. Tradition has a reason behind it. Change for change sake is always folly. The canyons Clark fears are the canyons created through a growing ignorance of tradition.

What we are witnessing today, emotivism on equal footing as truth is not progressive or kind but a return to a pagan, pre-Christian milieu.

The tenderness for which Clark opines, and reads into the narrator of “Mending Wall” represents what the writer Flannery O’Connor warned,

If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.

I vote we listen to our fathers and keep mending the wall.

Dave Morgan lives in Dublin.

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