The Fence by Lenrie Peters

Background of the poet

Lenrie Peters is a 76 years old Gambian medical doctor. He was born in Gambia in 1932. His poem is a reflection of the condition in his country. He was once the chairman of the West African Examination Council (WAEC). He schooled in Sierra Leone where he gained his Higher School certificates and then went on to a BSc. from Trinity College, Cambridge. He was awarded a Medical and Surgery diploma from Cambridge in 1959 and then he worked for the BBC on their Africa programmes from 1955 to 1968.

Background of the poem

“the fence” is a reflective poem that uses a proverbial “fence sitting” as a yard stick  to say that the poet is unable to cross the fence or take initial decision, the poet is in a state of dilemma and confusion because he sits on the fence

Structure of the poem

There are seven stanzas in the poem. In all, there are 25 lines , the lines are arranged in a way that shows the broken and confused thoughts of person. The title of the poem is suggestive to sit on the fence means not to take side in an issue or conflict.

This is the person’s dilemma reflected in the constant use of opposites ageing  body  and active mind,truth and trust, forward as backward, good and bad, past and future, several image is used to illustrate the person’s indecision an the effects of his inaction.

Students should read the book” the fence” by Lenrie Peters; for proper understanding

There where the dim past and future mingle
their nebulous hopes and aspirations

there I lie.

There where truth and untruth struggle
in endless and bloody combat,
there I lie.

There where time moves forwards and backwards
with not one moment’s pause for sighing,
there I lie.

There where the body ages relentlessly
and only the feeble mind can wander back
there I lie in open-souled amazement

There where all the opposites arrive
to plague the inner senses, but do not fuse,
I hold my head; and then contrive
to stop the constant motion.
my head goes round and round,
but I have not been drinking;
I feel the buoyant waves; I stagger

It seems the world has changed her garment.
but it is I who have not crossed the fence,
So there I lie.

There where the need for good
and “the doing good” conflict,
there I lie.

The poem is an artistic chronicle of the poet-persona’s irresoluteness on real, temporal and abstruse issues affecting human lives. He presents different hypothetical junctions at which contrasts meet; he then goes on to express his fence-sitting at each.

Stanza 1 – Explanation

In the first verse, he talks about ‘the dim past and future’ and makes it apparent that he lies at the mingling point of their ‘hopes and aspirations’. He uses two words that make emphasises on a general sense of uncertainty – ‘dim’ and ‘nebulous’. He ends the stanza with a crisp ‘there I lie’. He has plunged himself in the middle of the confusion. We can infer from this first stanza of the poem that the poet-persona does not accept people’s common view of the supposed certainty of the past, and, being in the present (where the past and the future meet), he does not see the hopes or aspirations which the future is imbued with with any particular clarity.

Stanza 2 – Explanation

In the next stanza, he lies at the place where ‘truth and untruth struggle’. There is an endless battle between ‘truth and untruth’. He uses the word ‘untruth’ because it would create an unintended pun if he says ‘truth and lie’. But for us the readers, we can extrapolate this idea to affect the last line of the stanza where he says ‘there I lie’. The pun is created without intention. He lies. What exactly does that mean? He is telling a lie or he is lying down at a point? The antagonism between truth and untruth here is referred to as a ‘combat’, both ‘bloody’ and ‘endless’. He may have made the right choice to abstain. Human beings are naturally inclined to tell lies. The poet-persona makes us understand that he contends with these moral forces too.

Stanza 3  and 4 – Explanation

This stanza draws a parallel between time moving forward and backwards with no stop. The third and fourth stanzas take us on forward-backward journeys of time. Time moves forward , time moves forward and the ‘body ages relentlessly’. What can he do than stay aloof? The poet-persona is amazed by it all, soul and all. Of course, he does not know what to make of it.

Stanza 5 – Explanation

In the fifth stanza, Peters tells us that he stands in a point where all the opposites meet. In that meeting, they confuse him and plague his inner senses. He cannot make a decision and his irresolution eats him up. He tries to control his spinning head, to find some sort of reason in the midst of all the confusion. In this stanza we can  see the effects of the constant mixing of ‘opposites’ on the inner senses of the poet-persona. He is confused and completely disoriented, feeling and acting like a drunk. He has not been drinking, but, he could ‘feel the buoyant waves’, and he staggers. The writing style mirrors the state of his mind as the sentences come and go.

Stanza 6 – Explanation

This stanza unlocks the meaning behind this poem. In this stanza, we see what could have fed the disorientation of the poet-persona. The world ‘has changed her garment’ but he has not changed with the world. He has ‘not crossed the fence’, remaining undecided. The indecision comes from a conflict between his past and his present. The world as he knew it and the world as it is now. Most vivid is the difference in a family where parents were born and raised in a far-away village and now are raising their children in a cyber-world. The conflict may be pronounced for a man who knows not how to use these gadgets and stares blankly as he is confronted with them. This may not be the best picture but it is a mirror enough of the kind of conflict that Peters draws our attention to. ‘So there I lie’, he concludes.

Last Stanza

After explaining his conflict to us, Peters goes back in the last stanza to his complaining ways. This final stanza brings out more intensely what the poet is saying – the denouement. So in the middle of this stanza, Peters enlightens us. His whole misunderstanding with the world comes from the world’s noble intents for all things ‘good’ and the actual ‘doing good’. Many people know what is right, talk about what is right and advocate for what is right but never actually do what is right themselves. The need for good and the actual doing good! There he lies.

The Fence By Lenrie Peters