“Good fences make 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 inescapable part of getting along, even if the boundary between people is only psychological. What good fences don’t have, however, makes a lot of sense, especially if nature has something to say about it.
The narrator of the poem tells of how groundwater freezes every winter, bulging the ground in places and scattering stones. Also, rabbits always hide in the wall, forcing hunters to go through it to catch them. In fact, the narrator doesn’t even grow the same things as his neighbor nor does he have any cows to keep track of, so why do they go through the hassle of rebuilding the damn thing together every year? “Mind your own business, questioning boy,” says the neighbor. Ahh right, that’s why.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, published just a year later, also addresses the idea of limits, but in a less rural setting. There may well be something in nature that doesn’t love a wall, but Prufrock lives in the middle of a city and it shows; it has a wall around it worthy of a Pink Floyd nightmare.
He is in love with someone, he does not say who, but he is too shy to reveal his feelings. He spends his time wandering dark streets contemplating his predicament and postponing his decision. However, he simply imagines that he does it while distracted at tea parties; we are never quite sure. Turns out someone is a bit vague on the details, which means the community of readers is left in the dark, which means voila! Prufrock managed to alienate himself a little more.
Prufrock is so isolated from everyone, in fact, that he actually cuts them into little pieces, metaphorically speaking, anyway. He does not see people as people, but as “faces that you meet”, “eyes that fixate on you” and “[a]rms speeding up. “Quite ironic, coming from a guy who is terrified of being separated as a scientific specimen by society.
So the question is, are people simply unable to connect in any meaningful way? Kind of like that, but again, not really. Think about it: here is Prufrock, complaining that he cannot express himself and that no one will ever understand him, in 132 of the most fascinating lines of poetry in the English language. Spoiler alert: Complaining about miscommunication is actually a form of communication! Or what about the fact that the only time the “Mending Wall” narrator 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.