R. S. Thomas and Robert Frost: Before Mending a Wall . . . .

wallRobert Frost begins his poem “Mending Wall” with the observation: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Then he goes on to say that he and his neighbor picked a day for mending the dry stone wall between their properties, and as they worked, the neighbor kept repeating, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Frost is not so certain:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in and walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

The neighbor, on the other hand, is certain: His father had said, “Good fences make good neighbors,” and that is good enough for him – “He will not go behind his father’s saying.”

Churches tend to mimic Frost’s neighbor, declaring, “This is what we’ve always believed. It was good enough for the Church Fathers, so it’s good enough for us.”

They will not go behind their Fathers’ sayings, will not look open-eyed at whom or what they are walling in and walling out. No; their principal concern is keeping the old walls mended.

God, meanwhile, is the One who doesn’t love a wall, who wants it down, who undermines the walls that people build, often in God’s name.

For centuries, slave owners used the Bible to support the wall they erected to protect the institution of slavery. God used the Abolitionists, who worked with a loving-God reading of the Bible, to undermine that wall.

For centuries, men used the Bible to keep women subservient, to ban them from church pulpits and altars, to keep them subjected to men in society. God used Feminists, who worked with a loving-God reading of the Bible, to gain full equality for women in church and society.

R.S. Thomas carted a wall with him when he went to Manafon, his first parish. This wall enclosed him as a town-bred, educated, ordained man. It walled out parishioners as uncouth, stinky, spiritually numb. But as he ministered among these hill farmers and shepherds, God, the one who doesn’t love a wall, began an undermining action, and RS, in the poem that follows, asks himself about a man with “stinking garments” and “an aimless grin”:

Is there anything to show that your essential need
Is less than his, who has the world for church,
And stands bare-headed in the woods’ wide porch
Morning and evening to hear God’s choir
Scatter their praises?

Soon RS was seeing people like this man as his “prototypes,” as men and women who were themselves grounded, deeply rooted in the natural world, God’s creation, and therefore able to help ground him.

When, I wonder, will churches begin to see same-gender lovers as their prototypes? For it is certain that the loving care of gay men for their partners and friends dying of AIDS is a model of selfless love in our era.

Physician and poet Rafael Campo, who is gay, writes:

                                 . . . I saw the fence

I still believe invisibly
Might fence me out; . . .

In another poem, Campo says:

No knowledge is more powerful
Than knowing love, than knowing how
To love despite a world so full

Of the intent to hate. . . .


Poems quoted in this post:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” – “Mending Wall,” The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969), 33-34.

“Is there anything to show that your essential need” – “Affinity,” The Stones of the Field (1946), 20.

“I saw the fence” – “So in Love,” Rafael Campo, What the Body Told (1996), 3.

“No knowledge is more powerful” – “Defining Us,” Rafael Campo, What the Body Told (1996), 13.


6 thoughts on “R. S. Thomas and Robert Frost: Before Mending a Wall . . . .

  1. a story,…between an american rancher and australian outback farmer…the rancher was bemouning the time, energy and resources that he invested in maintaining his fences. The australian had no fences, just a pure sweet water well in the centre of his land, his cattle did not stray far from what they know is life sustaining ….. we need more untainted wells in this world.

  2. It’ll take awhile more still. But slavery is no longer an integral part of the Western economy, we’ve realized Anthony’s dream of a nation of women voters and thanks to modern tools, minority opinions cannot be muffled by antiquated prejudices. We’ve come a very long way.

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