Robert Frost’s Haunted City Streets: “Acquainted with the Night”

robert_frost_stampFirst thing this morning, Irene, my colleague in the English Department, asked me to pull all the Robert Frost books from the library’s shelves and put them on reserve for her IB Standard Level English students, so I knew I would want to choose a Frost poem for The Uncommon Reader tonight.  I rifled through our American literature collection at school and pulled multiple collections of Frost’s poetry, all the literary biographies, all the lit crit volumes, gathered up the picture book interpretations of his poems, and even an edition of his writer’s notebooks, all texts used to provide context and supply ideas to support her students’ learning.

I recognized Frost’s “Acquainted withe the Night” immediately after flipping to that particular page in You Come Too: Favorite Poems for Readers of All Ages which I was adding to Irene’s book cart. It was a kind of uncomfortable shiver of recognition.  Noel Perrin, in the introduction to the 2002 edition, writes that, “With ‘Acquainted with the Night’ the reader gets one of the most hauntingly powerful sonnets in our language” (Perrin xvi).  I think it’s the present perfect tense of the poem that haunts me, “I have been one acquainted with the night/I have walked out in rain—and back in rain./I have outwalked the furthest city light.”  I’m forced to acknowledge that there are more times than I’d like in life where the “time is neither wrong nor right”, it has happened before and will most likely happen again where I find myself leaving the comfort of my warm bed and soft-shadowed house to find some solace out in the night air.  I uneasily recognize the lone walker in Frost’s city.  I see a grey-scale image of myself pacing the streets around our house, whether in Oxford or Vienna or Ithaca or Voorburg, feeling my way in the dark on the rare occasions when anxiety and insomnia loom over and ruthlessly block my attempts to sleep.

My memories of those restless pacings are developed in my mind in black and white, all color washed out of the houses, the gardens, the cars parked at the curb.  Even the street lights are muted by shadows.  When I think of those nights, I remember feeling out of time, out of focus, the street could be any street, the year could be any year.  Here’s a photo, “Street Lights Jefferson Avenue at night” from Flickr Commons that evokes those midnight prowlings and Frost’s poem “Acquainted with the Night”:

street-lights-jefferson-avenue-at-night

“Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back, or say good-by;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

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