In this year of Slater Museum's closure for its reroofing, Robert Frost's 1914 poem, "Mending Wall" is invigorating and restorative. In Eastern Connecticut, our stone walls and their builders are profound treasures of our heritage. Some say that Frost invites us to think about walls - both real and metaphorical. At Slater, necessary physical repairs have similarly led us to contemplate many aspects of the museum's identity: its founding, purposes and physical needs for the next 100 years.
Mending Wall - Robert Frost
Frost's lines stretch without the gaps of indentation or stanzas, setting the poem emphatically before us as solidly as a mended wall. At its simplest, the poem urges us to preserve and protect. But since it is still winter as I write, I'll pull some "loose stones" out to celebrate both our Slater statues, and our winter rambles beyond our Norwich walls.
Frost's poem begins with the inevitability of entropy: that manmade things need care and attention: protection both from natural changes (frozen-ground-swells) and humans (hunters). Could there be a better endorsement of a museum curator, one who must examine the structures, the documentation, and the very objects of the museum?
But the poet farmer also calls across his boundary line and engages his neighbor. Their restoration of their stone wall brings them together and clarifies their differences (apples and pine trees) and their common ground. The shared task both divides and unites these neighbors. This winter Slater docents and museum members have visited our sister museum Lyman Allyn, and are reaching across boundaries of geography, art history and genre.
The Slater Cast Gallery offers insight into Ancient Greek ideas about these topics. Hermes was the ancient Greek God of boundaries and boundary crossers. He carried messages from Zeus, the king of the gods, from Mt. Olympus, to humans on earth, and Hermes led the souls of the earthly dead to the Underworld. As the divine messenger he could cross all boundaries, and cairns and boundary stones were sacred to him. In Ancient Greek a boundary stone was called a herm (ἕρμα), and its ritual and legal placement also carried his divine authority that it not be moved. Ancient travelers relied on herms, as we do street signs and highway markers. For Frost and his neighbor, the respected boundary of the wall establishes identity, stability and security.
As the divine boundary crosser however, Hermes had a famous sense of humor and might endorse Frost's "Spring mischief" which leads him to playfully test his neighbor's idea of "good fences." Hermes could protect human boundary crossers like hunters, a trespasser, thief, or even an outlaw. In one myth, when he was a precocious toddler, Hermes stole Apollo's cattle, and then used his age as a legal defense when Apollo called him to account before the divine arbiter, their father, Zeus.
In an exhibition this Spring, (Norman Ives: Constructions and Reconstructions, January 29-April 24, 2022), the Lyman Allyn Museum is celebrating the life and artistic work of graphic artist Norman Ives, who attended Wesleyan and Yale, and taught design at Yale. Ives' work could hardly do more to pull the "stone walls" of our artistic preconceptions apart. In his works, letters of type can appear as art forms in themselves, but also can be cut into unrecognizable fragments and then remixed into new patterns in collage or prints. In our daily lives we usually look to signage and print as trustworthy guides. Thus, like Robert Frost and his neighbor, we can feel confused or shaken when modern art violates our expectations and unmoors us from the usual signposts of meaning.
In the large piece that opens the Lyman Allyn exhibit, Ives uses letter forms and overlays them in three colors- red, black, and white- to animate his composition, but their positions and the many overlays make it difficult to comprehend. His work becomes a cipher, a puzzle, and the asymmetry of its strong diagonals gives it tension and movement. Its title, Centaur, coaches the viewer to pick out letters of Man o Horse, even though tracing their combination and orientations continues to rock us back and forth and "gallops."
In the cast galleries of Slater Museum, the statues of centaurs are among visitors' favorites. To the ancient Greeks these hybrid monsters jostled the boundary between human and animal. Sometimes centaurs reflect a wondrous interspecies alliance of altruism, as in the stories of Chiron, the centaur healer and teacher of heroes.
In the story of the Olympia temple pediment, however, the battle of centaurs and men of the human Lapith tribe occurs at a wedding. There, the centaurs violate the highest moral code of Xenia or Hospitality after their human minds fail to control their animal passions of drunkenness and lust. The Severe Style sculpture of Apollo, god of poetry, reason, and music, shows him both balanced and serene as he intervenes to restore order.
In the coming months it appears that the boundaries imposed on us by the COVID pandemic will ease; late Spring may bring us common ground in visiting our neighbors "beyond the hill." Perhaps we will see old slates removed from the Slater roof and saved for reuse.
Inwardly restless from our prolonged Narnia winter, many of us hear an echo of Frost's impish realization that Spring mischief is saying, "Something there is that does not love a wall."