A Fence or an Ambulance

Last week I posted my version of the Allegory of the River. Any time I think about that story, I find myself thinking about the poem about the ambulance and the fence as well.  You can find the poem all over the internet. It is attributed to Joseph Malins (1844-1926), who was a temperance activist in Massachusetts and in England. Malins is believed to have written this poem in 1895.

A Fence or an Ambulance

Joseph Malins (1895)

– a poem about prevention –


‘Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,

Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;

But over its terrible edge there had slipped

A duke and full many a peasant.

 So the people said something would have to be done,

But their projects did not at all tally;

Some said, “Put a fence ’round the edge of the cliff,”

Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.”


But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,

For it spread through the neighboring city;

A fence may be useful or not, it is true,

But each heart became full of pity

For those who slipped over the dangerous cliff;

And the dwellers in highway and alley

Gave pounds and gave pence, not to put up a fence,

But an ambulance down in the valley.


“For the cliff is all right, if your careful,” they said,

“And, if folks even slip and are dropping,

It isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much

As the shock down below when they’re stopping.”

So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,

Quick forth would those rescuers sally

To pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,

With their ambulance down in the valley.


Then an old sage remarked: “It’s a marvel to me

That people give far more attention

To repairing results than to stopping the cause,

When they’d much better aim at prevention.

Let us stop at its source all this mischief,” cried he,

“Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally;

If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense

With the ambulance down in the valley.”


“Oh he’s a fanatic,” the others rejoined,

“Dispense with the ambulance? Never!

He’d dispense with all charities, too, if he could;

No! No! We’ll support them forever.

Aren’t we picking up folks just as fast as they fall?

And shall this man dictate to us? Shall he?

Why should people of sense stop to put up a fence,

While the ambulance works in the valley?”


But the sensible few, who are practical too,

Will not bear with such nonsense much longer;

They believe that prevention is better than cure,

And their party will soon be the stronger.

Encourage them then, with your purse, voice, and pen,

And while other philanthropists dally,

They will scorn all pretense, and put up a stout fence

On the cliff that hangs over the valley.


Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,

For the voice of true wisdom is calling.

“To rescue the fallen is good, but ’tis best

To prevent other people from falling.”

Better close up the source of temptation and crime

Than deliver from dungeon or galley;

Better put a strong fence ’round the top of the cliff

Than an ambulance down in the valley.


So, the poem argues strongly for putting a fence around the top of the cliff. I’m a feminist, and I guess a bit of a pragmatist. In my mind there is no fence strong enough to keep everyone away from the edge of the cliff. Prevention is important for sure — it is absolutely necessary!  And, I am a feminist. So, for me it is always both/and. Yes the fence! and Yes the ambulance as well — because some revolutionary anarchist is going to see that fence and take it as a challenge, as a boundary that must be broken — and who will then slip and slide down that slippery slope.  So, fence and ambulance both for me!


what’s your vote? thought? reaction??


2 thoughts on “A Fence or an Ambulance

  1. RAA

    Prevention first and foremost. It can and will minimize the need for an ambulance. Education and instruction for the general populace. The ambulance for the true accident; not so much for the anarchist, or the fool, who should pay for their own consequences.

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