According to Wolfgang Mider, the author of “‘Good fences make good neighbours: history and significance of an ambiguous proverb’” presented at the Twenty-First Katharine Briggs Memorial Lecture in November 2002, a version of this proverb exists in many different cultures and languages. Consequently, no one person can claim to have said this. The most notable use of the quote in English Literature belongs to Robert Frost who used the line in his poem “Mending Wall.”
This quote seems to be contradictory in nature. How can neighbors come together if they are divided by fences? As Mider points out, these sentiments are not totally contradictory.
Mider’s article appeared in Folklore, volume 114, issue 2, published in 2003. This research article, complete with citations, traces the history of the quote by presenting international references including German, Norwegian, Russian, Japanese and Hindi versions of the quote.
Even Benjamin Franklin is known to have said, “Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” Given how many different cultures have versions of this proverb, it represents a very common sentiment among neighbors everywhere.
Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” reiterates the confusion that the proverb suggests. In the poem, two neighbors walk the length of their dividing wall each spring to mend whatever has fallen off. The speaker does not understand the purpose of the fence; however, his neighbor merely repeats the phrase, “good fences make good neighbors.” The speaker has no alternative but to continue this ritual with his neighbor each year despite his own belief that mending the wall is a waste of time.
This specific quote could be attributed to Robert Frost who used it in one of his early poems. However, the statement represents feelings common to many cultures and other versions of this proverb predate Frost’s poem.