August 13, 1961: Berlin Wall

51 years ago today.

Soviet-bloc communism disabused us of a lot of ideas, including pointing out that when the amplification was turned up a lot, even Robert Frost could be wrong in the voice of his farmer and neighbor character, because high, concrete and concertina wire fences don’t make good neighbors.

A rock wall in Vermont, like the one Robert Frost wrote about -Wikimedia image

A rock wall in Vermont, like the one Robert Frost wrote about -Wikimedia image

Of course, even in demonstrating Frost in error, the communists made the opening clause of “Mending Fences” more poignant: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . .”

Residents of Berlin awoke on August 13, 1961, to discover that the Soviet-dominated East Germany had begun constructing a wall across Berlin, to keep East Berlin residents from escaping the clutches of communism and walking to freedom in West Berlin.

This year I saw a mock up of part of the Berlin Wall next to an exhibit honoring Winston Churchill at the Trout Museum of Art in Appleton, Wisconsin.  A few days later I saw actual portions of the wall, mounted for permanent display at the National Churchill Museum on the Churchill Center in Fulton, Missouri.  A few days later, I saw more sections of the wall, with one of the 300+ guard towers, at the Newseum, in Washington, D.C.  On Each occasion I was reminded of my own  trip to the Wall in 1987, finding next to the boarded-up Reichstag eight wreaths, honoring the eight people who were known to have died trying to cross the wall in the previous six months.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.  That something is freedom.

Please see other Bathtub posts on the topic:

And remember the poet’s telling, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

A wall Robert Frost would not love - Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz, November 1975, from West Berlin - Wikimedia photo

A wall Robert Frost would not love – Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz, November 1975, from West Berlin – Wikimedia photo

9 Responses to August 13, 1961: Berlin Wall

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  3. Lars says:

    Thanks for looking it up, Ed – I am still bumbling about in Gutenberg Land and tend to forget just how easy it is to access such material these days, even when the book is not upon your shelf.
    No quarrel with your interpretation. I find Frost a bit difficult, to be honest. And where I live, there are hardly any walls of this sort. What farmers we have heap fieldstones in piles every click or so, and the rattlers come and live in these every summer.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Well, Lars, let’s go to the poem! Here, from a University of Pennsylvania site:

    Robert Frost

    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,
    And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
    The work of hunters is another thing:
    I have come after them and made repair
    Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
    But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
    To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
    No one has seen them made or heard them made,
    But at spring mending-time we find them there.
    I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
    And on a day we meet to walk the line
    And set the wall between us once again.
    We keep the wall between us as we go.
    To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
    And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
    We have to use a spell to make them balance:
    ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
    We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
    Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
    One on a side. It comes to little more:
    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’.
    Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
    If I could put a notion in his head:
    ‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
    Where there are cows?
    But here there are no cows.
    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 offence.
    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. 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.”

    There’s the line you remember.

    It’s a deep, deep poem, on so many levels — as is living life and doing almost any routine chore, especially ritually as in this case.

    And then I twist it all up and try to apply it to the Berlin Wall?

    Yeah, I’m guilty. Every time I read this poem, I think of the cowboys mending the fence (Remington?), the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the walls the patriots used to shield and hide them as they peppered Gen. Gage’s troops on their retreat from Lexington and Concord, Humpty Dumpty, the Wailing Wall, and every fence I’ve ever labored to build or repair.

    Damn that Robert Frost! He’s invented a brain worm!

    Frederic S. Remington (1861–1909) The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895 Oil on canvas Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas 1961.230

    – Frederic S. Remington (1861–1909), The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895; Oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas 1961.230

    Other analyses:

    Sparknotes analysis
    Poetry @ Suite 101 analysis
    An article in The Atlantic claiming Sarah Palin misunderstands the poem


  5. Lars says:

    I haven’t read the poem in decades, Ed, and don’t have a copy here to hand, but I seem to recall a line or a couplet likening the neighbour, carrying stones in each hand, to someone from a more primitive period of human history, insisting upon limits and defending them with man’s oldest tools and weapons, stones. That’s what I took away from it; you’ve gone a lot deeper than ever I did.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    If he was being ironic, it was only at the third or fourth level, I think. First, as the line said, something doesn’t like that wall. No matter how often the neighbors get together to rebuild it, the frost, snow, rain, whistle pigs, deer, heat, cold and wind bring it down. Frost is referring to the older, greater forces of life and nature. But second, there is the feeling of community, the actual exercise of community in rebuilding the the thing, time after time. Isn’t that rather a futile exercise? The neighbor says — and perhaps here’s the great irony which you sense — “good fences make good neighbors.” Read the poem, sit back in your chair and think for a moment: Does he mean that there are boundaries beyond which we should not go with neighbors? Does he mean that staying out of each others’ affairs makes us good neighbors, or is he saying, perhaps subliminally, that “good neighbors” is another way of saying “not really friends?” Do friends keep those fences? Or, does he mean that the upkeep of the land, together, binds neighbors together?

    The first time I heard that poem I was a young school kid in Idaho, on the great northern desert, the sagebrush plain, where potato and “dry farming” of wheat were big deals. Rocks? We got ours, smoothed over, from the Snake River. Oh, there were some stones out on the plains, but not many. One of my classmates asked from where had all the stones come to make the fences, and why were they such sharp, angular stones?

    In New Hampshire and much of New England, before the land could be farmed it had to be cleared, first of trees, and then over and over, of the rocks the glaciers had left behind in their retreat, torn from the mountains and left to vex and break the plows of European-style farming. There is some great metaphor in the fence-building and maintaining for the conquest of the land, such as it was then.

    Today, if you drive through New England you’ll see those fences stretching through forested areas. Since 1910 the land has grown back to forest as farming became less able to support local farmers, and as local people turned to other occupations. Now forests isolate old farmhouses from each other, and people retreat to them for solitude. Often the people don’t really know their neighbors at all.

    Maybe Frost knew more than he said. Maybe he said a lot more than he knew. Maybe that’s the irony.


  7. JamesK says:

    That when he was saying that “good fences make good neighbors” he really meant the opposite. That boundaries are what alienate people from each other.


  8. Ed Darrell says:

    Maybe. How do you mean?


  9. JamesK says:

    Wasn’t Frost being ironic in that poem?


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