Robert Frost reads Acquainted with the Night (a closer look at the present perfect tense in English)

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.



Acquainted with the Night is a good poem to examine and think about the present perfect tense in English. The present perfect is a period of time in the past that comes right up to the present, but remains unspecified.

When a friend tells you, “I’ve walked a mile,” you know your friend has walked a mile, but you don’t when. Just now? Last year? Last night?

The simple past, unlike the present perfect, does come to an end. When your friend tells you, “I walked a mile last night,” you know when. Your friend took a walk last night.

The present perfect has happened, perhaps a second ago, perhaps a century ago; 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.

The poet in the poem is so sad and depressed he can hardly move. 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. No one calls or cries for him at the edge of town as he walks into the dark, and then comes back to tell us about it. This is what is good about this negative poem: the coming back to tell us about it.

Frost worked very hard to get the natural clever rhymes: ABA BCB CDC DADA AA, a sonnet written in iambic pentameter. Read it; feel the language and the flow of the lines, listen for the rhymes, and become familiar with other sounds.

How many times does Frost use the present perfect?

I have been one acquainted
I have walked out
I have walked back
I have outwalked
I have looked down
I have passed by
I have dropped my eyes
I have stood still
I have stopped
I have been one acquainted

Frost uses the simple past twice. Can you find it?

One luminary clock against the sky
proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

It is interesting to think that in this poem, time remains in the past, while the poet in the present perfect continues to walk toward the present.




Robert Frost, 1874 – 1963


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