The snow of a fierce Connecticut winter has finally melted, releasing its icy grip on the land.
The time is now upon us to repair stone walls. We can also fix a poetic injustice in Connecticut’s legal literature.
Robert Frost, New England’s quintessential poet, celebrated and ridiculed this two-person outdoor game in his famous “Mending Wall.” After the ground has stopped its freezing and heaving, Frost tells us: 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.
His farmer neighbor and counterpart in this two-man task is fond of repeating the old adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
But Frost, like a vigorous appellate advocate, or a professor, or a judge, wants to poke and probe at this assumption. “Spring is the mischief in me,” he wrote, “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.
Frost’s land is an orchard, his neighbor’s an evergreen forest: 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.”
Frost’s intellectual testing, probing, of the need for walls between people, figuratively and literally, is at the heart of his message. The key line, “Something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down,” made a big hit when, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy quoted it in Berlin.
Too often, people recall the “good fences, good neighbors” refrain as Frost’s holding and completely miss the point.
A decade ago, two of Connecticut’s most respected appellate jurists, Peter T. Zarella and Thomas Bishop wrote a Connecticut Bar Journal article about separation of powers and the Judicial Branch’s changing functions. They led off by quoting the bare adage, “Good fences make good neighbors,” attributed to Frost.
There’s a gap in meaning here. Frost was challenging that bromide, not endorsing it.
Unfortunately, there really is no place to appeal a law review article, except another law review article. Or perhaps a spot like this.
It’s been said that a poet can survive anything except a misprint. At this “spring mending time,” Frost deserves to have this old gap fixed.
To give them the benefit of the doubt, Zarella and Bishop may have quoted the phrase with self-deprecating irony, fully recognizing that Frost was questioning the creation of walls for their own sake.
The article was entitled “Judicial Independence at a Crossroads.”
It made the point that the constitutional separation of powers might well be applied to curb the Judicial Branch’s growing bureaucracy of social welfare programs, like alternative incarceration, civil enforcement of child support, probation, victim advocacy and community courts. Other states often leave these functions to the executive branch, or don’t have them at all.
It’s certainly understandable that some judges would like to return to a more traditional black-robed role of ascribing guilt or innocence, imposing money damages, and letting the chips fall where they may.
But the thrust of Frost’s poem wasn’t about creating stronger divisions; it was about thinking long and hard before doing so.
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.
His portrayal of his farmer neighbor, carrying two rocks “like an old stone savage armed” was trenchantly critical:
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.”•