“Good fences makes good neighbors” is an old British proverb that Robert Frost revitalized in his 1914 poem “Mending Wall.” According to the narrator’s neighbor, personal space is an unavoidable part of getting along, even if the boundary between people is only psychological. What good fences don’t make, however, is a whole lot of sense – especially if nature has anything to say about it.
The narrator of the poem talks about how the groundwater freezes every winter, bulging the ground in places and sending stones scattering. What’s more, bunnies always hide in the wall, forcing hunters to plow through it to catch them. In fact, the narrator doesn’t even grow the same stuff as his neighbor or have any cows to keep track of, so why do they go through the hassle of rebuilding the dang thing together every year? “Mind your own business, question boy,” says the neighbor. Ahh right, that’s why.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published just one year later, also tackles the idea of boundaries, but in a less rural setting. There might well be something in nature that doesn’t love a wall, but Prufrock lives smack in the middle of a city, and it shows; he’s got a wall around him befitting a Pink Floyd nightmare.
He’s in love with someone – he doesn’t say whom – but is far too timid to reveal his feelings to her. He spends his time wandering through dark streets contemplating his predicament and postponing his decision. Or, he just imagines that he does as he zones out at tea parties – we’re never quite sure. Turns out, someone’s a little vague on the details, meaning we the reading community are left in the dark, meaning voila! – Prufrock’s managed to alienate himself a little further.
Prufrock’s so cut off from everyone, in fact, that he actually cuts them into little pieces – metaphorically speaking, anyway. He doesn’t see people as people, but as “faces that you meet,” “eyes that fix you,” and “[a]rms that are braceleted.” Pretty ironic, coming from a guy who’s terrified that society will pick him apart like a scientific specimen.
So the question is, are people just incapable of connecting meaningfully? Kind of, but then again, not really. Think about it: here Prufrock is, moaning about how he can’t express himself and no one will ever understand him – in 132 of the most fascinating lines of poetry in the English language. Spoiler alert: griping about a lack of communication is actually a form of communication! Or what about the fact that the only time the narrator of “Mending Wall” interacts with his neighbor in the poem is when they – what else – work together to rebuild the wall? Maybe good fences really do make good neighbors.