‘Good fences make good neighbours’ – Do They Not?

Zac Gladman 11 November 2019
Image Credit: Wende Museum

Robert Frost’s Mending Wall remains as relevant as ever thirty years on from the destruction of the world’s most infamous ever wall – but what, if anything, have we learned from that momentous night in Berlin, and what can we learn from Frost?

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.’ Thus opens one of Robert Frost’s best known and greatest ever works, Mending Wall. Thirty years ago, though, on the evening November 9th 1989, that entity which ‘doesn’t love a wall’ amounted to far more than a mere something. An entity more powerful than the biting winds of winter, the incessant waves of sharp, stabbing rain, the creeping, destructive armies of ice that, in Frost’s poem, are enough to send ‘the frozen-ground-swell under it’, to spill ‘the upper boulders in the sun’, and make ‘gaps even two can pass abreast.’ For this was a wall planned, constructed and maintained with such unfaltering precision that even the worthy foes found in the poem were thwarted. This was a wall which divided an entire nation, a wall which, quite simply, transformed and ruined countless lives. This was a wall more notorious than any other in the whole world: The Berlin Wall. And here in Berlin, a great deal more than ice and rain was needed.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’

Two years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ronald Reagan uttered the line that echoed around the world: ‘Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ The inexorable tide of change was rising. And soon enough, with the Eastern Bloc disintegrating around it, East Germany was flooded with protests. At the peak of what is known as the ‘Peaceful Revolution’, half a million people assembled at the Alexanderplatz demonstration on November 4th 1989, followed just five days later by a mistaken announcement that plans to open the border would come into effect ‘immediately, without delay.’ Eager to be reunited with their Western friends and family, wave upon wave of East German citizens broke upon the wall’s checkpoints. Now, walking the streets of Berlin in the hope of seeing larges segments of the Wall can sometimes feel like a wild goose chase; with a few exceptions, all traces of it have completely vanished, the most notorious ‘anti-Fascist protection barrier’ in World history gone forever.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

‘Why do they make good neighbours?’

Or is it? Has the barrier between East and West, between Ossis and Wessis, between people living in a country with a complex history and even more complex set of values, truly been destroyed? Only five years ago, the Berlin Institute for Population and Development found that fifty percent of Germans consider Easterners and Westerners to have more differences than similarities; in the years following reunification, the jubilation witnessed that night on the ninth of November 1989 ebbed away, leaving behind widespread dissatisfaction and disappointment at the unexpected economic hardships of life in eastern Germany faced by many. For years, the chasm between the economies of the former West and the former GDR was unmistakable, and, by every single metric, eastern Germany remained dwarfed economically by its Western counterpart. The gap has, to some extent, been bridged, yet the former East’s GDP per capita is still roughly twenty percent lower than in the West. At its peak in 2005, unemployment in the former GDR was ten percent higher than in the former West. Though that figure is now closer to two percent, clear economic differences still linger.

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.

For those too young to have ever witnessed a world containing two different German states, maps of Germany pre-dating reunification can seem bizarre. It can understandably be hard to imagine that there was once a physical barrier separating these two countries, these two sets of people, these two vastly different ideologies. But that physical barrier becomes far easier to imagine, far more real and solid, when viewing maps depicting the spread of votes for the highly controversial right-wing party AfD (Alternative for Germany); the percentage of votes won by the AfD increases significantly as soon as one reaches the former East, and even in politically-based maps of Berlin itself there is a line where the Wall once stood, now separating lower support for the far-right policies of the divisive party from a disconcertingly healthy support in areas formerly located in East Berlin.

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 neighbours.’

And so we come to the lines of Robert Frost that have become more relevant than he could have ever imagined. ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’ Do they not? Frost’s great poem paints a complex picture of its narrator; on the one hand, he questions the validity of his neighbour’s maxim, and points out that this fence, as far as he is concerned, serves no real purpose. (‘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.’) So why bother? This is, it would seem, isolation for isolation’s sake. Yet the narrator nonetheless meets with his neighbour once a year to walk the line and mend their wall, taking part in the self-isolation that he questions so readily. Indeed, he is the instigator of this isolation; he is the one who lets his neighbour know about their crumbling wall, he the one who sets this in motion. Is this, then, even isolationism? Or is it the opposite? After all it is their wall that, once a year, allows them to meet as neighbours and co-operate in resolving this shared issue.

“‘Good fences make good neighbours.’ Perhaps, after all, they can.”

‘Good fences make good neighbours.’ Perhaps, after all, they can. While he remains unconvinced as to the necessity of this fence, he sets this doubt aside and, by participating in the mending of the wall that his neighbour considers an important structure, he himself surely becomes a good, respectful neighbour. And, as we progress through ever more uncertain times, this is an important point to consider. Sometimes, good fences can make good neighbours. If, that is, those neighbours agree to co-operate in building that fence, agree that its presence is either necessary or of no consequence to them.

However, fences can also make truly terrible neighbours, and it is this that we must not forget. What frustrates the narrator more than anything is not the wall itself, but his neighbour’s unquestioning veneration for his father’s saying that ‘good fences make good neighbours.’ (‘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.’) To not question why we have borders, fences and walls is, for sure, a dangerous game to play. And, like the narrator’s neighbour, it is yet more dangerous to blindly follow the sweeping statements of those in power who tell us, often to the tune of demagoguery, that we need to build that wall!, take back control!, protect our land!  Indeed, humans have a long and complicated history with walls, and that history seems set to progress. On the other side of the Atlantic, President Trump is seeking to erect such a wall between Mexico and America, and even though this looks unlikely to truly come into being, he has nonetheless split the United States in half with these controversial plans. Back home, Brexit has divided an entire nation, built an invisible wall between differing ideological groups, widened the channel into an ocean whose waters, rough with the storm of anti-EU sentiments, make navigating the UK’s difficulties with Europe harder than ever.

And so, in such delicate times, we must ask ourselves: why? Why do we need walls? Why do we need to separate and isolate ourselves? Good fences can, sometimes, make good neighbours. But no fences can make even better neighbours. We are living in a world where multiculturalism is blossoming like never before, where different groups of people are able to live in harmony together, where walls, fences, borders are losing their necessity. So why go backwards? Blindly adhering to tradition and the dogma of others without stopping to question whether they have outlived their usefulness would never be wise. Sometimes, these rules may indeed remain relevant, but it is far better to test the boundaries than accept them. Everything we hold dear in our society, everything that shapes the way we live, has all been propelled by people who stood before the seemingly insurmountable wall of acceptance for the status quo and chose to reject the established methods of the time, breaking down, brick by brick, such barriers to progress. So why not break with rhyme? With metre? Why separate high-brow from low-brow, art from mass-media, or (dare I say) articles on notorious German history from quintessentially American poetry? It is good to test a structure for its faults and pressure points and adapt to the unique needs of each moment.

So do good fences make good neighbours?

To answer one way or the other would be misguided. To say that fences always make good neighbours would be to ignore what history has shown us, but to say they never do would be to subscribe to the dogma that we should avoid in our modern world. As such, it is a question that can never truly be answered definitively. What can be said with certainty, however, is that we need to ask why? and that in today’s world, we need to be incredibly careful when blindly scrambling to build walls and isolate ourselves. Good fences can make good neighbours. But more often than not, they do not. And when they do not, like in Germany, these fences leave behind scars which never truly disappear.

Zac Gladman is a third-year MML student at St John’s, currently studying history on his Year Abroad in Germany.