“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.” —Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
“. . . though one part of our experience may lean upon another part to make it what it is. . . experience as a whole is self-containing and leans on nothing.” — William James, “The Essence of Humanism” (1905)
I. Let’s Get Lost
In “Experience” (1844), the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson asks, “Where do we find ourselves?” The New England poet Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” (1914) continues an American tradition of pondering this vexing question whose answer remains elusive. In this pastoral’s simple narrative, a neighbor calls his neighbor to repair the wall between their inherited land. Its famous categorical adage, “Good fences make good neighbors,” often occupies an interpretation’s centerstage.
Whether the poet affirms this as wise or ironically disavows it may be as unresolvable as the forever-toppling stones. But it’s the first line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” that sparks a pragmatist’s curiosity. Why do human constructs and cultural norms persist despite all else in nature evolving? This primordial “something” rises from the earth to crumble walls and initiate this annual patching-up parley.
It calls us to read this poem again and again.
Extravagant claims have been made about the power of poets, but a poem, like a wall, is a thing made by human hands. Words stacked in lines and stanzas, it’s a place to observe how our inherited vocabularies structure us. Poets think, in part, by describing where they find themselves in the protean something called nature (φῠ́σῐς / phúsis). A poem describing the nature of things can transform our sense of where we find ourselves.
A poem fully poems when its readers crawl into it as if it were their own skin.
Then, the reader “plays” a poem like music, or moves with it as in dance, as the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey says in Art as Experience (1934). Then reader and poet inhabit a shared experience. Otherness dissipates. Sensibilities and subjectivities entangle. Metaphors derange and rearrange. Walls fall.
Poets often frustrate philosophers who are tempted by the eternal allure of ontological, metaphysical, or ethical questions. For the philosopher, to think is to ask what is? What is the good? What is a good fence? What is a good neighbor? The genetic persistence of what is? is a symptom of faith in the eventual discovery of the Truth. The history of this congenital cognitive defect, however, finds us bewildered. We are creatures forever disagreeing about who, what, why, when, and where we are.
A poet, like a pragmatist, as William James notes in Pragmatism (1907),
turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins.
Poets and pragmatists turn toward sensory experience. They dwell in “open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of finality in truth,” James says. So why keep asking what is, as if what is ephemeral will, like magic, solidify into truth?
II. Under Repair
There may be no such thing as “nature” avant la letter. What we call “nature” natures as an ever-unfolding surprise. As seekers and makers of meaning, we desire to make sense of enigmatic causes and effects. We want explanations that provide completion.
The inciting incident of the rehearsal of an old saw in “Mending Wall” is the seasonal return of the “something there is” bent on dismantling human artifice. Walls stand because of what people decide to do, but their falling is a different matter. This wobbly wall, the literal and metaphoric foundation of the neighbors’ reunion, is not an abstract ideal. It needs repair because it is, like all things, in flux. The “something there is” bringing down the wall comes from we know not whence. It is neither true nor false. It simply is, yet it joins nature and social space.
In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty considers poets ironists. As historicists (who claim meanings depend on historical context) and nominalists (who argue universals and abstractions only exist as names or labels), ironists confess their beliefs are contingent upon their own times and temperaments. In their empirical world, realist essences of imperishable truths grow barren. With the erosion of metaphysics, imagination blooms. It is the business of artists, poets, and ironists, Rorty says, to create new metaphors, fruitful metaphors that contain multitudes. They do not “accept somebody else’s description” or “the language other human beings have left behind.”
Most of us inherit a faith and a habit of maintaining borders, real and metaphysical.
The tool for the latter is often a creed or a philosophical vocabulary—nouns and adjectives James calls “humanized heirlooms.” The falling wall is a fact for both neighbors. Yet, James notes, “We read the same facts differently.” What one says about “something” depends on one’s interests, perspective, and preconceptions. These neighbors’ temperaments differ. One arrives to shore up his theory; the other, to query. James might call one a “tender-minded” rationalist, armed with abstractions and universal principles. The other—the speaker—a “tough-minded” empiricist, interested in parts more than wholes.
Frost, as a poet, mediates between the neighbors’ consideration of their “loose universe.” His poem estranges us from commonsense claims about good fences and good neighbors. He makes us see how “real” stones become fixed ideas. With him, we pivot toward the dynamic precariousness of things. The pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras observed that “man is the measure of all things,” but the falling stones, and what causes them to fall, like metaphors, disarrange those measures.
III. Border Patrol
Frost’s “Mending Wall” invites pragmatic discussion. He uses a setting and characters’ perspectives to wonder what difference a wall makes. He renews our attentiveness to the somethings resisting knowledge and mastery. The speaker, captivated by impermanence’s prodigious, willful dynamism, considers what he sees:
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. . .
The speaker wants to give this unseen force (this frost?), a name, but it resists naming. This tumbling, like all that is, was, or will be, like this poem and our reading of it, is a making of the sun. It is a something with consequences. It seems to have intentions, a will, social and aesthetic preferences.
Where we find ourselves, something undermines our designs, or at least “doesn’t love” them. Something somethings despite our industrious resolve to tame it. The something “makes gaps even two can pass abreast.” These inexplicable gaps differ from the explicable “work of hunters.” Ardent hunters and their “yelping dogs” topple stone walls in their pursuit of rabbits. Like other ideas existing “out there,” their prey evades their grasp.
James notes, “The human passion of curiosity runs on all fours with the systematizing passion.” Hunters, like metaphysicians, believe that with the right tools and methods, they will someday capture what they seek. But what they catch never satisfies. They kill and eat, or stuff and mount it, and continue the chase for what they presuppose will.
The manmade ones are not “the gaps I mean,” the speaker says. It’s the ones “no one has seen them made or heard them made” provoking his thinking. They sprout “at spring mending-time.” The speaker and neighbor
meet to walk the line And set the wall between us once again.
Keeping “the wall between us as we go,” they restore the border: “To each the boulders that have fallen to each.” Why does the speaker relish this ritual he initiates? Might these two, this spring, stand in awe before the sublime mystery of the “something there is”? Revise some old beliefs? Make some new metaphors?
Listen to “Scientific Knowledge Is Metaphorical”
IV. Nothing But Blue Skies
James observes: “We plunge forward into the field of fresh experience with the beliefs our ancestors and we have made already; these determine what we notice; what we notice determines what we do; what we do again determines what we experience.”
For the neighbor, the reified stones are what the property line is. For the speaker, living in a reality marked by change, they are like metaphors. They alter: “some are loaves and some so nearly balls.” Unlike the stones, the neighbors’ relationship suffers little change. As in other springs, this dialectical event turns out to be
just another kind of out-door game, One on a side. It comes to little more.
It’s a sport that will go on, next season and the next. Yet the speaker had almost enticed his neighbor into the play of imagination:
We have to use a spell to make them balance: “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
The rationalist’s world abounds with superstition that subdues the terror of the unnamable quasi-chaotic forces of nature. The neighbor’s wisdom, like his father’s, however, leans on divine authority, which defies augury, perhaps something like:
Men move boundary stones; they pasture stolen flocks. (Job 24:2) Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set. (Proverbs 22:28) Cursed be he that removeth his neighbor’s landmark. And all the people shall say, Amen. (Deuteronomy 27:17)
Both farms and adages, American naturalist Henry David Thoreau might say, are “inherited with encumbrances.” What the speaker says of stones could also be said of creeds: “We wear our fingers rough with handling them.” The speaker, walking the ancestral line, does not say “amen” or put his faith in walls or old-time religion. Instead, he continues to wonder: Why have a wall? Why not let fallen walls be?
As the speaker shifts his gaze ahead to see what is possible beyond where they find themselves, the neighbor returns to his bromide:
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.”
The “there where it is” reveals an immuring fear about maintaining what is one’s own—be that property or faith. Are you afraid that my marauding apple trees will trespass and gobble up your fallen pinecones?
“There where it is” discloses occulted aspects of the being of things. It is like a clearing—eine Lichtung ist—as German philosopher Martin Heidegger says in “On the Origin of the Work of Art” (1950). Frost’s clearing may not be an ontological event as momentous as Heidegger’s. It’s just pine trees and an apple orchard. But to reach this clearing is to reflect on its relation to the “something there is.”
What does walling ourselves inside inherited concepts and proverbs make of us? Frost’s ambiguities emphasize their artificiality and cruelty. Frost helps us hear commonsense claims like “Good fences make good neighbors” as utterly unneighborly.
V. Turn, Turn, Turn
Inside Frost’s crafted blank verse lines, we become, with him, puckish. His meter sets us awhirl between incompatible ways of understanding. Habitual ways of seeing blur. Engaging the proverb, the speaker blossoms:
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I could put a notion in his head: “Why do they make good neighbors?”
Not the metaphysical what is? But a poetic why? Why cling to inherited beliefs if we seek to know the “real?” Why not say, then see, something else? Poets, as Rorty writes, worry about having “been initiated into the wrong tribe, taught to play the wrong language game.” They wonder if socialization has turned them “into the wrong kind of human being.” Yet, Rorty says, as ironists, they don’t have “a criterion of wrongness.”
Ironists cannot prove—nor do they desire to prove—inherited concepts wrong, but they aren’t interested in old games.
“The trouble with arguments against the use of a familiar and time-honored vocabulary,” Rorty says, “is that they are expected to be phrased in that very vocabulary.” The goal of a poet is to “put a notion” in another’s head. Unstiffen theories. Help us find ourselves where we actually are.
For realists like the neighbor, Rorty writes, “What matters is not what language is being used but what is true.” Metaphysicians want rules and laws. Poetic ironists think of those as platitudes. Their description of what they are doing, Rorty notes, “is dominated by metaphors of making”—of poiesis. The poetic thinker “takes the unit of persuasion to be a vocabulary rather than a proposition. . . redescription rather than inference.” They hope that by “using old words in new senses, not to mention introducing brand-new words, people will no longer ask questions phrased in the old words.”
Ironists seek those with ears to hear redescription. But, Rorty notes, “most people do not want to be redescribed.”
We need fences because we have always had fences, claims one; the other wonders if we ever needed fences, or why we need them still. Frost puts a notion in our heads, so we also ask,
Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
The speaker would rather be a good neighbor than spout patrimonial ideas about good neighbors. Worrying the why, the speaker continues,
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.
This offensive fence closes the possibility of communion. The offense is undemocratic and unfriendly. Why would one offend one’s neighbor whom one is commanded to love as oneself?
VI. A Moral Holiday
It is possible, Rorty writes, “to juggle several descriptions of the same event without asking which one was right—to see redescription as a tool rather than a claim to have discovered essence.” A poet uses the play of language as a tool of thinking to “make up” meanings. If the speaker can’t alter his neighbor’s framework, maybe he can make him mischievous:
"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.
The romantic poet and novelist Goethe quips, “Superstition is the poetry of life, and so it does not hurt the poet to be superstitious.” The speaker doesn’t believe in elves, but if he can disturb one rock-solid notion, might others fall? Why not tempt his neighbor with the fruit of superstition?
The neighbor lives in what James, in “The Will to Believe” (1896), calls a realm of “forced options,” where there is no alternative to maintaining “faith in someone else’s faith.” Or, as Thoreau writes, “stone-walls piled up on our farms” become the bounds “henceforth set to our lives”; they decide our fates. But, Thoreau evangelizes, “The universe is wider than our views of it.” The speaker wearies of his neighbor’s imaginative shortfalls, and on this day has less sympathy than Thoreau or James might:
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.”
The neighbor’s reliance on “the truth” of his father’s maxim offers what the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche christens “metaphysical comfort.” Escape might feel unnecessary, or impossible, if escape is ever even considered. Inside his father’s faith, he will not wonder about the defamiliarizing “something there is” indirectly critiquing it, nor realize the love of his neighbor his encompassing faith requires. For the speaker, the dogmatism that “will not go behind his father’s saying” seems barbaric, but not “wrong”—if it works for his neighbor. If his attempt to lodge a notion in his neighbor’s head fails, he’ll get him next season.
VII. Where We Find Ourselves
“The poet,” with great flourishes of hyperbole, has been considered an otherworldly prophetic genius with greater access to the mysteries than mere mortals. The romantic tradition, however, sometimes describes a poet as a person speaking in the plain style of ordinary people.
Accompanied by Emerson and Thoreau, James and Rorty, thinking through a poem like “Mending Wall” shows how poets and pragmatists possess what the English poet John Keats, in a letter (1817), calls “negative capability.” Both are “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” They are “content with half-knowledge.”
Poets, the English Romantic poet Wordsworth writes in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1800), delight in contemplating “the goings-on of the Universe.” Abandoning the “foolish hope of reasoning,” they describe “incidents and situations from common life.” Adding “a certain colouring of imagination,” they present these “to the mind in an unusual aspect” to “confound and identify” the poet’s and the reader’s feelings.
James asserts, “All human thinking gets discursified; we exchange ideas; we lend and borrow verifications, get them from one another by means of social intercourse.” A poem is a discursive mode—a something—“one cannot confirm or disconfirm, argue for or against. One can only savor it or spit it out,” to use Rorty’s phrase.
Neither walls nor metaphors remain completed.
“There is nothing to complete,” Rorty claims; “There is only a web of relations to be rewoven, a web which time lengthens every day.” As poets do things with words, they weave new relations and, like Frost’s something, dig us “out from under inherited contingencies.” Wall-menders sentence themselves to a life imprisoned in “an old final vocabulary.” Poets open gates, tear down walls, try to become better neighbors. The “something there is”—be it nature or art—offers to parole us from our metaphysical sentences. In its clearing, we may find ourselves at home.
Rick was born into a family of moonshiners, railroad men, and unionized ALCOA factory workers in the foothills of the Smokies. He grew up in Nashville. He lived in Kentucky, Florida, and Alabama before, like Davy Crockett, ending up in Texas, where he teaches literature and writing, writes about literature and philosophy, and occasionally makes poems.