I'm a news hound. So it's not surprising that I've been thinking a lot lately about walls. I'm also a poet with a deep love of history, and to me, walls are symbols that speak of exclusion and threat. And I’m not alone. Over the centuries, countless poets have pondered the value and fate of history's many walls.
Carl Sandburg, in A Fence - Poem written in the early 1900s, admits a fence of iron bars with steel points will effectively, he says, "shut off the rabble, vagabonds (and) hungry men”, but also “all wandering children looking for a place to play.” He calls it a “masterpiece”, but regrets that it allows nothing to pass ... except “Death and the Rain and To-morrow.”
The Indian poet Mien Bless knows walls and fences surround us everywhere, “creating boundaries both inside and out…” concluding “It’s about time we realize these walls and fences are just malice”. And while it’s true that walls are built to divide, their eventual fate is to fall.
My son and daughter-in-law spent the holidays walking parts of Hadrian’s Wall in northeastern England. Constructed in the second century by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, the wall stretches 73 miles from coast to coast, one of the most famous barrier walls in antiquity. In places, it rose 20 feet high and sat as much as nine feet wide. Fortified by towers and defended by legions of Roman soldiers, the wall was a daunting symbol of military might.
But among historians, there’s much debate as to the effectiveness of Hadrian's Wall. At least one scholar has declared it represented an “ideology of empire” – a show of force that in the end was more message than effective deterrent.
And most of it now lies in ruin, many of its stones pilfered over centuries. Rather than a victory monument to exclusion, it’s been transformed by time into a hiking path overlooking pastures and rolling hills. Once mighty, Hadrian’s Wall is today just another reminder of how fleeting is power.