I wrote this piece a few years ago. It was Autumn then, not early summer as it is now, but the walls still stand, and walls are still being built. More than ever, I feel that we should really think hard about why we build walls, and whether all of them are really necessary.
Robert Frost and the Berlin Wall
This time of year, when all the green stuff is beginning to die back, the bones of the countryside start to become more visible. Here in Devon, the networks of hedgerows and dry stone walls are suddenly foregrounded; their structure and relationship to the land revealed now that the lushness of summer is receding. They seem organic, these boundaries, part of the nature of things, since many of them have been in place for hundreds of years or more, but of course they are all man-made and need to be maintained.
In Robert Frost’s great poem ‘Mending Wall’ two neighbouring farmers walk the length of the dry stone wall which separates their properties, each on his own side, repairing the holes after the winter weather, making the boundary between them once more complete. ‘Something there is that does not love a wall’, muses Frost’s speaker, pondering the damage that occurs when no one is there to see. But he still goes though the spring ritual of mending: one day a year to ‘set the wall between us once again’. 'Just another kind of outdoor game,' he says.
This particular wall serves no useful purpose as far as the speaker can see, since all it does is separate one kind of tree from another, and as he says ‘My apple trees will never get across/ and eat the cones under his pines…’. His neighbour sees things differently: insists, as his father did before him, that ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, and as readers we may smile at this old cliche, this unsophisticated parochialism. But then we read Frost's description of him picking up the fallen stones ready to put them back in place and mend the wall:
...I see him thereand we realise that to the neighbour this is something far deeper and darker, more primeval, than just a game.
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed
There’s something very ancient in this need for boundaries, for marking one’s territory. History is criss-crossed by the bones of boundaries: Bronze Age field systems on Dartmoor, castle walls, city walls, Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China. Frost’s wall, like all these walls, is a social and psychological construct as well as a physical one: to the neighbour it is a representation of ownership, and of tradition, of something which must remain fixed. For Frost as poet, it seems to represent the barrier between two people’s points of view.
Point of view about boundaries and territory is addressed in another Frost poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.The poem starts
Whose woods these are I think I know.The speaker is riding through some woods which are not his, but the trespass seems to be implied not in the passing through, but in the stopping and looking. Perhaps taking pleasure from something that is not yours is a crime, even if by doing so you hurt no-one? Certainly Frost seems to feel that his speaker has crossed some kind of moral boundary. ‘He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods…’ has a very different implication from a possible alternative that Frost didn’t use: ‘He will not mind me…’. So even without walls, the social boundaries of territory exist.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
In English, the word ‘wall’ is a kind of catch-all. We have to use the same word, whether we mean the internal vertical surfaces of a room, or an exterior dividing agent. German is kinder, and allows speakers to distinguish between an internal wall (Wand) and an external one (Mauer). The most famous German wall is of course the Berlin Wall, a barrier between two diametrically opposed points of view – those of Communism and of Capitalism.
The division of East and West Berlin took physical form on the night of 12th August 1961, when East German troops and workers tore up the streets adjacent to the border, and laid barbed wire and fences to prevent anyone crossing. The first bits of actual wall (concrete and blocks) were laid by August 17th, and soon there was a wall along the whole border. In 1975, however, the East German border troops started building a new type of wall along the border: the Grenzmauer 75. This was made from 45,000 sections of reinforced concrete, each 3.6m high and 1.2m wide. It was painted a bright, inviting white. Graffiti was of course forbidden in East Germany, but by the beginning of the eighties, artists had decided that the Western face of the wall was a massive canvas waiting to be filled. Many artists, known, unknown, or anonymous, painted on the wall. Sometimes a painting was only there a day before it was painted over. Anyone could paint. The wall, a symbol of oppression, became a place of expression – but only to those on one side. The Western side was riotous with colour, the Eastern side plain and greying.
In the Bible, (Daniel 5: 1-31) the ‘writing on the wall’ foretold the demise of the Babylonian Empire. While it would be pushing it rather to pretend that this is directly analogous with the Berlin Wall and its graffiti art, given the events of 1989 and after it’s quite a pleasing idea to prop, rather like some flimsy but decorative ladder, up against it.
More than twenty years after Reunification, few parts of the Wall remain, although on those stretches that do, the Eastern face is now covered with graffiti too. Pieces of the fallen Wall have made their way all over the world and can be found displayed in embassies, parks, schools, hotels and museums. But there is still a vestigial wall, albeit invisible. Germans talk about the ‘Mauer im Kopf’: the wall in the head. (Incidentally, it’s interesting how the spatial specificity the German noun – its externality – makes its paradoxical placing within an internal space – the head – so much more striking.) Polls have indicated that some Germans regret Reunification, and feel that the erosion of cultural differences between the East and West is a negative thing. In other words, they wish the Wall was still there.
Which brings us back to Robert Frost’s neighbour, who wanted the boundaries kept solid, visible, unbroken. Knowing that the boundary was there in abstract was not enough. To him, the wall in the head needed be made manifest by the wall on the land, even though to Frost’s more pragmatic persona, there seemed no point at all.
So, what is the 'something' that makes the gaps, the something that doesn't like a wall? The something that
…sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,It’s frost.
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Image 1, Drystone wall: Lupin at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2, Berlin Wall: Noir at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons