Christianism, Doubt And Robert Frost


A reader after my own heart writes:

Six years ago I got into a heated argument with a group of Iowan evangelicals who were, like me, visiting Northern Ireland (Cushendall, to be precise).  Having just graduated from an extremely lefty college with a literature degree, flush with Guinness, and being a burgeoning anti-theist to boot, I got into a spirited debate with them over the use of irony in Frost's poetry.  They insisted that I was "thinking too much" about the poem and that I needed to "read it from the heart."  Then they formed a prayer circle and asked that I be forgiven for my sins (they didn't enumerate my sins, but I'm guessing hubris and intoxication were among them).  No joke.

In my years back home in the American South, I have grown increasingly unsurprised at the tendency of evangelicals, nativists, and "true patriots," to read Frost in an unserious manner.  We need not make a conclusion if the poem is definitely of the opinion that walls separate neighbors or instead create useful boundaries.  At the very least, it is a poem that begs us to question the premise -- something which Palin et al. clearly don't understand.  Much like a kitschy framed needlepoint "I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference," a superficial reading of Frost may seem nice -- but it is still kitschy.  Nothing in "The Road Not Taken" actually allows us to determine which road is, in fact, the one less traveled by, or whether the difference made was a positive one or not.  It simply says that we make choices not knowing the future, must make our own decisions, and we cannot know what the alternate future could have been.  It is a short poem, easily read as a statement of individuality and independence, but it is fraught with doubt and possible regret.

Mending wall is hardly even ironic on it's face.  Most of the poem is devoted to questioning the premise -- without it the poem wouldn't be anything other than that one line, "Good fences make good neighbors." There is nature that does not love a wall, the neighbor who "will not go behind his father's saying," and the narrator, who says:
"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.'"

What is difficult about this?  We don't have to say that Frost or the poem takes a definite stance on the value of a wall, fine -- but it is obviously at least about the separations that walls make between relationships, and at least questions the common wisdom of "good fences make good neighbors."  It is clearly not a poem that is just about how good fences make good neighbors.  Much like the rest of the Christianist mindset, simple and superficial readings of layered meaning prevail.  A poem can be simply wrought while not being simple, and that is one of the things that makes Frost's work so beautiful.  It's their loss if they choose not to appreciate this, but wholly unsurprising -- it is a reflection of how they engage everything about the world.

(Photo: A US Border Patrol vehicle is driven along the US-Mexico border fence as agents carry out special operations following the first fatal shooting of a US Border Patrol agent in more than a decade on July 29, 2009 near the rural town of Campo, some 60 miles east of San Diego, California. By David McNew/Getty.)