Nihilism and the Neighbor from Beyond the Hill

Is Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” really a reproof against borders? To read modern journalists, one would certainly think so, for they can hardly type the phrase “border fence” without feeling an inspiration to add, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

When this happens, we should remember that a close reading of the poem shows that there is also something that does. Love a wall, that is. Frost’s neighbor from “beyond the hill” loves walls very dearly—so much so that he more than once remarks, “good fences make good neighbors.”

But what, you may say, of this neighbor from beyond the hill? Isn’t he merely a benighted oaf who serves as a foil to the witty and whimsical Frost? Isn’t it clear that Frost is twisting this yokel’s nose with his drolleries about Elves and the possibility that his apple trees might slip over and eat his neighbor’s pinecones? Isn’t the point of this poem to ridicule this neighbor from beyond the hill, and to expose his love of walls as an absurd prejudice?

Well, his love of walls is, without doubt, a prejudice; for Frost says his neighbor “moves in darkness” and “will not go behind his father’s saying.” But it is not at all clear that we are meant to see this prejudice as absurd.   After all, despite his teasing jests about Elves and pinecones and absent cows, it is Frost who every spring notifies his neighbor that the time has come “to walk the line” and “set the wall between us once again.”

What is more, if we look closely into what this “something” is that doesn’t love a wall, we discover is that it is is nothing great or good, but only natural decay and human destructiveness. It is the “frozen-ground-swell” that topples the rounded boulders, or hunters that “would have the rabbit out of hiding to please the yelping dogs.”

It goes over the head of sentimental journalists, but “Mending Wall” is a poem in praise of prejudice, and more particularly in praise of walls. Frost’s lofty sentiments are the babbling of an April fool, for as he says, “spring is the mischief in me,” and the last word is yielded to his stolid neighbor, who repeats the rugged good sense that “good fences make good neighbors.”

* * *

Good fences make good neighbors because without them neighbors have no definition, and there is no thing, and certainly no neighbor, that can exist without definition.  To define is literally to set bounds to a parcel of land, to say that this here is one farm and that there is another. Figuratively, to define is to set bounds to the meaning of a word, the scope of a project, the beliefs of a sect, or even the personality of a man. Without good fences—good definitions—everything assimilates into tohu wa-bohu, the waters over which the Spirit of God hovered before there was light in the world.

It is evident from the first chapter of Genesis that creation of the world was very largely a matter of definitions, of drawing boundaries, of raising walls. To make the world, God divided the light from the darkness, the waters above from the waters below, the waters below from the land, and the day from the night.   Among living things, he brought forth plants and animals, defining each strictly “according to its kind.”

And upon each division, he pronounced the definition good, for as the neighbor from beyond the hill knew, good fences make good neighbors.

But there is also, as we have seen, something in this world that “doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” There is something that hates definitions and yearns to return to tohu wa-bohu, to the shapeless waters as they were before there was light in the world. There is something that yearns to undo creation. What is it? Frost suggests that, in addition to frozen-ground-swell and rabbit hunters, it might be Elves.

And who are these Elves?  Nihilists, of course. For no one hates Creation more than a nihilist. No one is so eager to undo it—to efface definitions and topple walls and return to the shapeless waters of tohu wa-bohu, where there is no thing.

This is what the neighbor from beyond the hill knows in his bones. This is why he mends the wall.

* * *

You are a nihilist if you believe the neighbor from beyond the hill was a benighted oaf, and that you yourself have moved out of darkness precisely because you have gone behind your father’s saying that good fences make good neighbors. You are not a nihilist if you have a pious regard for walls of all sorts, literal and figurative, and a strong prejudice that they should stay mended.

Strangely, we are nowadays told with astonishing frequency that a good Christian will be an energetic nihilist. I read almost daily that there is something unchristian about walls, and certainly about men who would see that walls stay mended. I read this about the political boundaries that define and apportion the earth surface. I read this about the figurative boundaries that define man and woman, or Christian, Moslem and Jew. I read that there is something unchristian about definitions by which tohu wa-bohu was divided into this, that and the other thing.

If these things I read are true, then Nietzsche was correct to write, “nihilist and Christian: they rhyme in German, and they do more than rhyme” (1).

* * *

But these things are not true and Nietzsche was not correct. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, but God is not that thing. God agrees with the neighbor from beyond the hill, which is hardly surprising, since God is the Father whose saying the neighbor from beyond the hill has not gone behind.

(1) F. W. Nietzsche, The Antichrist, trans. H. L. Mencken (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920), p. 172.

6 thoughts on “Nihilism and the Neighbor from Beyond the Hill

  1. Pingback: Nihilism and the Neighbor from Beyond the Hill | Reaction Times

  2. I agree with your reading.

    In the poem, Frost certainly regards walls as necessary, but is musing on their problems – and of course there are many. He was mature and realistic enough to know that (in this world) many necessities also have serious problems (there is no perfect answer) – but that does not stop them being necessities.

    (But it does open up a theme for poets.)

    This is tough-mindedness, it is realism – and Frost liked to be tough-minded and realistic, and indeed to pose as even tougher minded and more relaistic than he actually was.

    This was his usual attitude on most issues – he favoured clear boundaries, but loved to dance along them and on both sides. He knew that this was the way of things: first justice, then mercy – strong walls, but the possibility of crossing them as deemed appropriate – by wise and shrewd human judgement.

    Frost loved walls/ rules/ separations – but often made an exception for himself! This trait was part of the necessity of his great genius (I regard Frost as a great poet – as well as being my personal favourite poet), and it was also a personal flaw.

  3. Excellent!

    This is one of the reasons I have set the subject of Geography as the central subject in our school curriculum for the kids. Geography, as you know, and as a distinct subject in the school curriculum with its own boundaries (the overlap into history and science and so forth, is where we’re constantly going back and “mending fences.”) is all about defining/establishing boundaries. Whether it’s Physical, Mathematical or Political Geography, it does not matter. And I want my children to learn to understand boundaries, why they’re necessary, why they’re there; and thereby to love them. Thus to mend their own fences.

    One of the things we’re constantly on guard against as primary teachers of our children is the temptation to erase or ignore boundaries in the school curriculum (think “social studies” and “language arts”) – boundaries between the subjects that if destroyed or ignored tend to the introduction of chaos, thus an environment not conducive to true education.

    By the way, I define education thusly: All that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding [Let there be LIGHT], correct the temper, form the manners and habits of youth [give shape; establish BOUNDARIES], and fit them for usefulness in their future stations [furnish the mental house such that they may bear good fruit in their stations as mothers or fathers, husbands or wives, business owners, Christians, citizens and on and on.]. – Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language

    Thank you for this! You’ve made my day.

  4. Great art is axiomatically above narrow ideological interpretations. I find it weird that any halfway literate person could read this poem and decide that it is pro- or anti-wall, depending on their politics. It is obviously a meditation on this polarity, with Frost simultaneously playing one of the sides (as a character in the poem) and standing above the conflict as narrator.

    Just what is it that “doesn’t love a wall”? We have some possibilities:

    – nature (the freeze/thaw cycles that are undermining the farm walls)
    – elves
    – the mischievous spirit of spring
    – nihilists
    – savages

    And it hasn’t been mentioned, but how about artillery? I just took a tour of a civil-war era fort, and believe me, there was a lot of effort put into not-loving those walls.

    It is diagnostic of a serious spiritual problem if you think of all these things as enemies of God, who is as responsible for nature and nihilists as surely as he is for walls.

    • I’d thought I was rescuing the poem from narrow ideological interpretation, which beginning with my ninth grade English class has always been solidly on the anti-wall, anti-prejudice side. My aim was to suggest a metaphysical reading that readers here might appreciate. I agree that art is not propaganda, and so will not conform to an ideology, but I do not think great art is necessarily ambivalent or equivocal. Our age values ironic detachment because we are officially positivist, and therefore officially agnostic on a whole range of questions. This is a historical moment, not a universal state of affairs.

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