Robert Frost reads Acquainted with the Night (for the ESL student)

Acquainted with the Night is a good poem to show English language learners the present perfect, that period of time in the past that comes right up to the present but remains unspecified: “I’ve walked a mile.” “But when?” The simple past comes to an end: we know when: “I walked a mile last night.” “Last night. That’s when.” The present perfect has happened, and the expectation in this sonnet is that it will continue to happen, endless as heaven or hell, the agony never over like Sisyphus and his stone again and again and again.

Frost worked very hard on this poem for it to get its natural flow of lines so cleverly rhymed: ABA BCB CDC DADA AA, a sonnet written in iambic pentameter; students can get a feel for the flow of the language, listen for the rhymes, and become familiar with the sounds.

Robert Frost knew sadness and depression. He’s a man whose own feet are not his own: “I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet.” Whose feet? He can’t connect with them anymore than the cry he hears connects with him. Like Prufrock whose mermaids sing each to each, but not to him (how sad), no one calls or cries for Robert Frost at the edge of town as he walks into the dark. Ah, but he walks. And he comes back to tell us about it.

Acquainted with the Night

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-bye;
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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