"Mending Wall" by Ken Fiery, 2007, from the Robert Frost Series

http://www.kenfiery.com/gallery/pages/080.html 

There is an accepted idea among lovers of poetry that a poem is a shared experience between the poet and the reader. Though the poet will never even meet the majority of his audience, there is a relationship that exists between he and they in the shared experiences of his poems. Robert Frost opens up his second book of poems, North of Boston, with the famous poem “Mending Wall.” It is his first word and the reader’s first impression of the book. In “Mending Wall” Frost explores a relationship between himself and his neighbor who is not named; his identity remains vague to the reader and, as it seems, to the poet as well. It is Spring in the poem, and Frost and his neighbor walk the stonewall that divides their properties to make repairs after the Winter. Towards the end of the poem Frost questions his neighbor about the need for walls. His neighbor simply replies that “Good fences make good neighbors,” and Frost ends the poem with that thought.

“Good fences make good neighbors” is a cliché that Frost is questioning in this poem. The poem ends with that statement; however, it begins with “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The conflict that arises between these two lines which encase the poem is the dilemma that the poet faces in the lines which are physically between them. Frost emphasizes this conflict in a number of ways. Not only is one the first line and the other the last line of the poem, these are the only two lines which are repeated in the poem. Also, “Mending Wall” is written in blank verse, Frost will often add an extra syllable in order to make a line stand out in his blank verse poems, and he does this for each of these two lines.

In the beginning of the poem Frost considers what it is that doesn’t love a wall. While he and his neighbor are making repairs Frost asks him, “Why do [fences] make good neighbors?” and argues against the need for a wall. There is little debate that the wall represents relationship boundaries between people. It would be easy to conclude that Frost is arguing that there is no need for these boundaries and people should just trust each other and accept each other unquestioningly. Yet upon a closer reading there is much evidence in the poem that may reveal Frost is closer in agreement with his neighbor than it seems at first. After all, Robert Frost says about writing that “There is no story written that has any value at all, however straightforward it looks and free from doubleness, double entendre, and duplicity and double play, that you’d value at all if it didn’t have intimation of something more than itself.”

From the beginning of Frost’s argument in line 23, he uses language that sounds playful, almost as if he is teasing his neighbor. Such as in line 25:

          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.’

Before Frost continues to dispute with his neighbor, he confesses to the reader that “Spring is the mischief in me.” So it is evident that Frost is not taking himself so seriously; in fact when he repeats “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Frost considers the something to be like “’Elves’… But it’s not elves exactly.” If we look at Frost’s ideas of what exactly “wants a wall down” from the first half of the poem, we find he doesn’t have anything very flattering in mind. It is “the frozen-ground-swell…the hunters [who] would have the rabbit out of hiding, / to please the yelping dogs.” If this were a poem arguing against walls, Frost would probably have thought of the things that doesn’t love them as more positive. I believe that Frost does truly question the use of walls, but he never questions the value of them.

“Mending Wall” is a poem that reveals a healthy relationship between the poet and his neighbor. If the wall represents personal boundaries, the title itself is an analogy to repairing relationships. It is Frost who contacts his neighbor so they can make the repairs “And set the wall between us once again.” Frost and his neighbor respect each others’ boundaries, and they meet regularly to make repairs on their relationship. In line 15 Frost says; “We keep the wall between us as we go,” a perfectly regular pentameter line, but Frost again makes an emphasis in the next line with an extra syllable; “To each the boulders that have fallen to each.” Frost and his neighbor each take responsibility for their part of the disrepair of the wall. However, in the next four lines Frost talks about the compromise and work it takes to repair the wall:

          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.

It takes a lot of balance, i.e. compromise, to repair some issues but when our backs are turned from each other we often let the “balls” drop. Relationships are hard work. It is at this point that Frost playfully questions his neighbor on the need for walls. While Frost is not rejecting the value of walls, I think that he is lamenting the lack of access to his neighbor that their wall makes. While he questions his neighbor he states:

          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.

Frost expresses the down side that sometimes walls create a lack of understanding of the differences between neighbors. He uses the description of his neighbor who is grasping a rock to repair the wall; “I see him there…like an old stone savage armed.” But his neighbor remains elusive to Frost, which he expresses in two lines that he emphasizes as a loosely rhyming couplet; “He moves in darkness as it seems to me, / Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” That darkness is Frost’s ignorance of who his neighbor really is. Frost values and respects the boundaries in their relationship, yet he desires more access to his neighbor, as he says; “I’d ask to know / what I was walling in or walling out.”

Psychologists Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend have collaborated on a book entitled Boundaries, about the important roles boundaries place in healthy relationships. I think they express well in layman’s terms what Frost is expressing in his poem as his desire for his relationship with his neighbor. “Boundaries are not walls,” Cloud and Townsend write, they are “fences [with] gates in them…The important thing is that property lines be permeable enough to allow passing and strong enough to keep out danger.” To me, it seems when Frost questions his neighbor on the need for walls he is expressing his desire for passing through the gate in order to know him. Frost wants clearer understanding of his neighbor. Even with the playful way Frost debates with his neighbor he expresses his interest in him, yet his neighbor does not return the interest. He remains elusive to Frost only responding to him with the last words of the poem, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Frost opened his book North of Boston with a poem about his thoughts on healthy relationships. Though we, Frost’s audience, largely remained elusive to him, he offered to share his experiences with us. He kept his walls repaired but through his poetry Frost still keeps the gate open for us into his thoughts and ideas. “Mending Wall” invites us to continue the book and share in Frost’s experiences.

Peter L Richardson
“20th Century Poets”
September 22, 2003

Robert Frost on writing (pp125-128). Ed. E. Barry. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 1973.

Boundaries (pp 31-32). Dr. Henry Cloud, Dr. John Townsend. Grand Rapids, MI. c.1992.

“Mending Wall”
by 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: 5
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on 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, 10
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. 15
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. 20
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
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. 25
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. 30
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, 35
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, 40
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.”

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In 1995 Mel Gibson directed and stared in the five academy awards winning Braveheart, a movie celebrating the legend of William Wallace. Wallace is a 13th century Scottish hero who rebelled against the English occupation of Scotland. Braveheart is based on the novel of the same name by Randall Wallace, no relation to William, who also wrote the screenplay. Released at the height of Gibson’s popularity, it was a hit at the box office and received both high praise and high criticism. MaryAnn Johanson of FLICK FILOSOPHER raves “Braveheart is history the way it should be told, full of sex and treachery and battle and passion…” and Bob Thompson of JAM! MOVIES says “Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is probably not good history, and it’s no documentary — but it sure makes great Hollywood cinema,” while Paula Nechak of FILM.COM offers the biting review of “Braveheart opts to turn cowardly, settling for the magnification of Gibson’s idol status, forfeiting the complex, more nebulous magnificence of the real Sir William Wallace and virtually excising the strategic brilliance of Robert the Bruce” (rotten tomatoes.com). Although disagreeing about what is more important, the message of the critics consistently offer us is this– Great movie! Not so great history. 

But what is history? Is it simply the telling of tales from the past, or is it just what can be proven by factual information? If Gibson and Wallace had made a movie completely faithful to the factual information we have of William Wallace, it would be a short film. Our history depends upon the perspective of those who hand it down to us. Without much factual documentation of Wallace’s character—no diary’s, no letters, nothing to offer us a clue of what his political or life philosophies might have been—it leaves open a large space for speculation and for legend to grow. William Wallace was certainly a great man, achieving much for a commoner who lived in a society ruled by the laws of feudalism, but who this man is depends upon whoever is telling us the story.

Braveheart begins with a narrator who, we discover at the end, is Robert the Bruce. He says, “I shall tell you of William Wallace– historians from England will say I am a liar. But history is written by those who have hanged heroes.” England’s power over Scotland is clear in history; England considered the northern part of the island a vassal state and William Wallace a rebel. In the Lanercost Chronicle, written during the reign of Edward I of England (known as Longshanks), Wallace is depicted as a brutal outlaw who “wasted all the land, committing arson, pillage and murder.” It “records” the atrocity of Wallace skinning an English official and making a baldrick for his sword (Morton 25). When the English defeated Wallace’s army at Falkirk the chronicle records a variety of English verse celebrating the victory and speaking against Wallace, including:
          Welsh William being made a noble
          Staightway the Scots become ignoble.
          Treason and slaughter, arson and raid,
          By suff’ring and misery must be repaid.
          (Morton 26)

But it is precisely this kind violent brutality– from the English—that was supposed to cause Wallace and his Scottish supporters to rise up and rebel. In the movie, Longshanks revives an ancient law which allows English nobles to sleep with Scottish brides on their wedding nights in order to “breed the Scottish out.” Though I couldn’t find any proof of this unlikely law, it is almost certain that the occupying English nobles and their armies were completely brutal, abusive and oppressive to the Scots. However, it is also just as likely that Wallace’s forces were just as brutal when they were able to sack Northern English cities. Raping and pillaging were simply a part of medieval warfare and occupation.

The brutality of the battle scenes in Braveheart is one of the movie’s claims to fame. Depicting the brutal reality of medieval warfare, Gibson doesn’t waste any film portraying a battle of chivalry, but gives us the in-your-face gruesome reality of 13th century warfare. Where the movie may fall short in historical fact concerning its characters, it does show an accurate perspective of medieval culture. Aside from Wallace, his woman, and Robert the Bruce, every one of the Scots looked like they belonged in a culture without the luxuries of indoor plumbing and electricity. Most of the English we see are among the high court of the king, and despite their glamour, they do match the images of the royal courtesans that have survived from that time. Certainly the peasantry and commoners were dirty enough and lacked the glamour of Hollywood. All the clothing matched the social status and culture of its wearers. Wallace, probably being a country gentleman landowner, would not have had much more than the stone house with a thatched roof as portrayed in the movie. Nobles possessing castles surrounded by wooden shacks were not emphasized, but this accurate imagery was present throughout the movie and gave the movie an authentic picture of 13th century Scotland. One cultural aspect that Mel Gibson borrowed from an earlier period of the Scots was the use of blue paint during warfare. This added to the cinematic effect and helped depict the legendary status of Wallace, but the use of blue paint by warriors dates back centuries before the time of Wallace (History Channel).

So what do we really know of Sir William Wallace? What are the facts and what is legend in Gibson’s epic movie? Edward Longshanks inherited the throne of England about the time William Wallace was born and he died only two years after Wallace was executed. Scotland lost their independence and throne to England while Wallace was still a boy, but it is unlikely that he was personally present to witness any betrayal of Longshanks to Scottish nobles. There is no evidence that Wallace was an orphan. Young William, however, would have grown up under the oppression of the English and could quite possibly have grown to possess a hatred for them. In 1295, when Longshanks demanded military support from his vassal, the Scottish king, in his war with France; the nobles divested their king and sided with the French. This provoked an English invasion and the installment of an occupational government, when the worst of English abuse and oppression probably began. Two years later in 1297 William Wallace made his first appearance in historical records for the burning of Lanark, an English stronghold. It was, in fact, in retaliation for the murder of Marion Bradfute, but it is not known whether she was his mistress or his wife, which provides us with the intriguing possibility that they were secretly married. With only thirty men Wallace took Lanark and slew Hazelrig, the sheriff who murdered Marion, and burnt the English stronghold to the ground. When news of this rebellion spread many more Scots joined with Wallace and he soon had a substantial army under his command.

Wallace met the English army later that year at the Battle of Sterling Bridge. This is Wallace’s greatest military achievement, the Scots virtually slaughtering the English. Key in Wallace’s victory, however, was the bridge the English had to cross to get to the Scots. Only a small number of English soldiers were able to cross at a time and became easy prey for Wallace’s men. The bridge, however, is curiously missing in the movie. As it turns out Gibson’s budget was diminishing and he couldn’t afford to recreate the bridge and the landscape required. It is apparently cheaper to film a bloody battle on a field (History Channel). Taking advantage of the momentum of victory, Wallace decided to take his army south and occupy much of the Northern English territory.

As a result of his victory Wallace was knighted and made Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland. However, Graeme Morton says, “His knighthood appears to be self-anointed, but accepted and commonly used by others. His appointment as Guardian in 1297 is more sure, not the least because the chronicles record his resignation (or removal) from this position after defeat at Falkirk in 1298” (19).  The Battle of Falkirk is Wallace’s most crushing defeat. It is unsure whether or not the Scottish nobles betrayed Wallace, but it is well established that he didn’t have support from any of them. Longshanks, concerned by Wallace invading Northern England, met him with the full force of the English army. Wallace was overwhelmed and was forced to retreat.

In the movie Wallace had traveled to France and Rome with his uncle while he was still a youth. In reality his trip abroad was caused by his defeat at Falkirk. The English put a price on his head and in 1299 he fled to France to seek assistance from King Philip IV, and possibly went to Rome from there. In 1304 Wallace is found fighting again for Scotland, but he is betrayed and captured by Sir John de Menteith, a Scottish noble. Robert the Bruce was already fighting by this time and would not have been involved in the deception, however innocently, at all.

Not surprisingly, the most detailed event passed down in the life of Wallace is his execution. Most sources agree that Wallace denied the charge of treason because he had never sworn fealty to Longshanks, so he was tortured and beheaded. It might just be legend that he was quartered and sent to “the four corners of England,” with his head put upon a pole over the Thames River; however, that would not be an unusual action for a medieval king desiring to dissuade any more rebellions. The rest of the story, narrated to us in the movie by Robert the Bruce is pretty much how it all turned out. The Bruce continued the rebellion, and dealing with a much weaker king in Edward II, after Longshanks death, he eventually won independence for Scotland and crowned himself King of Scotland.

Any other details in Braveheart are based on legend, rather than historical fact, except for Wallace’s relationship with Isabella, Edward II’s wife. The movie implies that the queen will gain the English throne much easier and sooner than it actually happened in history; likewise, the movie implies that Edward III is actually the offspring of Wallace. This seems to be Mel Gibson or Randall Wallace’s own addition to the myth and legend of William Wallace. But it wasn’t pulled out of thin air. It is based on a story from the fifteenth century epic poem, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace by a minstrel named Blind Harry (Medieval Outlaws 275). In it the queen, not the Isabella of France, visits Wallace and appeals to him to end his rebellion. Wallace does show her honor and respect, but there is nothing that suggests any kind of emotional or sexual relationship between them. Blind Harry’s identity is as elusive as his subject’s identity is, yet his poem was once considered to be a reliable source, if embellished, of history. He followed what we do know of Wallace very closely, but some of the valiant deeds attributed to Wallace by Harry have been found to have been “borrowed” from other legends of other heroes, discrediting events described that might be original but are otherwise unknown to history.

If the critics’ main complaint of Braveheart is the movie’s lack of historical accuracy, it is a weak one. The story of William Wallace is nothing but myth and legend. The historian J.Fergusson says that “To try to write a biography of William Wallace from historical sources only as distinct from traditional ones is like trying to restore a very old family portrait which several painters have tried to improve…The truth is that the original portrait, which family tradition tells us was a very fine piece of work, has been invisible for generations, and none of us has ever seen it” (Morton 62). There can be no denying that William Wallace was a great man, even a hero in his own time, but there is no way of knowing who he really was. This leaves the door wide open for myth and legend to be born and to grow. If we did know Wallace, he would never be able to live up to the standards that have been placed on his character. But myth he has become, and like any great myth, it is open to being retold and reinterpreted through the succeeding generations and following cultures. Its revisions depend upon what is important to the culture in which the story is told. Blind Harry presents to us a Wallace who is closer to Hercules than a mere mortal man. This type of character was glorified in the 15th century. Braveheart continues the myth through the cult of Hollywood and gives us a completely American movie. One man who just wants to raise kids and crops with his wife in peace gets pushed over the edge and must take his revenge by fighting for truth, justice and the Scottish way? Wallace’s talk of freedom and independence are closer related to an American Revolutionist. No doubt, Gibson’s speeches in Braveheart and his movie The Patriot could probably be interchangeable. But who cares? Braveheart is a great movie reflecting the sentiments of our time, and the character of William Wallace is a true inspiration to any man. He is the ideal for our culture, he can not be lived up to, but that is the purpose of the myth and legend; to offer us the ideal, to give us an example of something to look up to and strive for.

The most famous quote from the movie, “Every man dies, not every man really lives,” is ironic in that the William Wallace of myth and legend never really existed, but the ideas of freedom in Braveheart do live on in the heart of every man. Hasn’t this desire for “freedom” been the root of man’s struggle throughout all history?

Peter L Richardson
Summer 2003

Sources:
Braveheart. Directed by Mel Gibson. Paramount Pictures, 1995.

History vs. Hollywood. The History Channel, production.

http://www.historychannel.com/perl/print_book.pl?ID=119602

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/Braveheart-1065684/reviews.php

Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English. Ed. Thomas H. Ohlgren. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1998.

William Wallace: Man and Myth. Graeme Morton. Stroud: Sutton, 2001.

Pete’s Class Notes.

Language is Power.

January 11, 2011

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. -Mark Twain

You have heard it said, “Knowledge is power,” but this is only true if you have the ability to unpack your knowledge and put it to action. Knowledge is power, but we need language to effectively communicate what we know and how we know it. Language is power because language is communication. Not having a good control of the language will often discredit a person who is otherwise very intelligent. An effective communicator is able to get what he/she wants through the control of the language. Language is how we express our ideas. Language is how we are able to reconcile a disagreement through discussion. We can use language to manipulate others, or use it to bring enlightenment. We use language to sell ourselves, our products, and our ideas. The greater command we have of language, the greater we will be at self-expression. Additionally, with a greater command of language we will be able to understand others and help others to understand ourselves.

Imagine yourself dropped into a country with a completely unfamiliar culture and a completely unknown language to you. Imagine the helpless state you would be in. You might be able to use hand signals or charades, but think of how limited that would be. Not only would the population seem strange to you, but you would be strange to them as well. Would they trust you? How could you communicate to them you were friendly? What if you did something that was offensive in their culture? You’d have no way of knowing unless you could understand their language. This is an extreme example, but it reveals how vital the ability to express yourself clearly is in regards to becoming successful in all areas: politics, careers, and relationships. In order to have trust with anyone, we must learn to “speak their language.” Before I finished college, I spent many years working at a university as a custodian. The facilities department constantly changed its policies, and our boss, who was college educated, would come and tell us about the new expectations, the reasons for the changes, etc. After her speech I would often have half the crew come to me and ask me what she meant, because she often spoke at a level that was over their education. With my background, I was able to understand my boss, and communicate what she said to my coworkers at their level of understanding.

 A larger vocabulary gives us more creative ways to express ourselves. It also enables us to be more clear and precise in what we mean. However, a good command of the language is also knowing when to use the vocabulary we have. When I finally made it to college,  I was exposed to a lot of new words, a lot of big words that I had to use in my papers if I wanted to make the grade, and those words eventually seeped into my everyday speech. That was good when I was in class or when I was in a discussion about some deep issue or world issue with a professor or college peer, but I found that when I talked to some friends who had not the desire or financial means for college, I came across as arrogant. If the purpose of communication is to get our neighbors to understand our point of view or to come to a new understanding about something we feel is important then we need to be careful not to win an argument with big words, but to speak in a way which they can understand what is said so they will be able to make their own judgment about the facts or truth you believe you are presenting. The power of language is not just in knowing words and knowing how to use words effectively, but also being able to speak and communicate at various levels, and knowing when it is needed to do so.

Peter L Richardson
(adapted from a 10/22/03 linguistics exam)

Wordplay

What’s in a word? What’s in a rhyme?
Is it the silent tick-tick of time?
Are they definition, description or meaning?
Are they truth, fact or seeming?
A word is empty without sight.
The sun is darkness without light.

Peter L Richardson
spring 1997