Robert Frost — "I have been acquainted with the night"
Author’s note: For this series, I have chosen four American writers of the 1920s to represent what I consider the dominant literary motifs emerging from American culture in that decade. Each arose from a distinct intellectual vantage point; each carried forth into later generations, and all are with us, in some form, to this day. Presented at the Bluestem Festival of Arts and Humanities, Lake Forest, IL, June 8, 2001.
ike American poet Langston Hughes, Robert Frost sensed his destiny. Robert Frost was a poet who lived so long and wrote so well that his name has become a household word. The “New England” poet, born in San Francisco, did some of his finest writing in the Midwest in the 1920s. Because of Frost’s growing reputation as an American poet, in 1921, he was invited to be the first artist-in-residence in an American university. The University of Michigan, under a privately funded grant, extended to Frost the Fellowship in Creative Arts for 1921-22. During his year in Ann Arbor, Frost wrote the poem, “Acquainted with the Night,” which is a master-creation of our literature:
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
At an annual Robert Frost symposium in 2000 at the University of Michigan2 a group of scholars, teachers, and members of the Frost family gathered to study and deliberate on the life and work of this great poet. At this particular symposium, led by Caxtonian Peter Stanlis, “Acquainted with the Night” was one of the poems chosen for discussion by the group. The following is a summary of the discussion, which lasted approximately one hour and was participated in by more than a dozen scholars, family members, and friends. The summary is adapted from “Musings” in the January 2001 Caxtonian.3
The poem, most clearly, some thought, reflects Frost’s affinity with Dante. A terzarima sonnet, it mirrors a Dante meditation in its circularity of structure and its dark tones and images. There is a foreboding sense of solitude — in Hell or in prison — in the Frost poem. “I have” is repeated seven times, a repetitive pattern extremely rare in Frost. Some felt the “I” is a masquerade — it is Frost defying the Romantic tendency of his Emersonian heritage.
The meeting of the “watchman on his beat” suggests self-isolation — “unwilling to explain.” Some felt this circumstance in the poem insinuates the poet’s own disaffection with society. “An interrupted cry” that” Came over houses from another street” hints at the speaker’s extreme alienation, for it was “not to call me back or say good-bye.” But others sensed the poem echoes the Old Testament image, from Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Frost’s “I” becomes something of the Biblical “I,” it was observed.
A few saw in the poem Gothic elements, in which the dignity of the sublime, as in Yeats, emerges in an elegant rhetorical pattern that leaves the speaker at the end of the poem precisely where he was at the beginning. Some were reminded of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and others of Eliot’s Prufrock. I suggested that the Frost sonnet has kinship with “The Windhover” — a sonnet by Gerard Manly Hopkins — in its meditative character and its extraordinary metaphoric extension.
Before it was all over, we were reminded that the line, “Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right” may have come from Frost’s Irish friend and fellow-poet, George Russell (“A .E.”), who was fond of saying, “The time is not right.” The poem, Stanlis reminded us, is one of Frost’s “dark poems,” like “Design,” “Once by the Pacific,” “The Hill Wife,” and “An Old Man’s Winter Night.”
I give you this extended summary, for I believe it illustrates Frost’s important contribution to the ‘20s and beyond. Frost, who had resisted certification by any Ivy League college — he had only honorary degrees — took the language of the people and gave it incredible depth and breadth through extraordinary subtlety, imaginative association, and an intellectual affinity spanning history, cultures, and writers of many lands and eras.
T. S. Eliot created “The Waste Land” in the same year Frost wrote “Acquainted with the Night.” The Eliot poem had to be footnoted to be understood — even by scholars — while Frost gave the world a poem, which is built on subtle and complex allusion upon allusion and is, nevertheless, understandable. Eliot had a sense of the great difference between his poetry and that of Frost. In an introduction of Frost to an English audience in 1957, Eliot said of him, “Mr. Frost is one of the good poets, and I might say, perhaps the most eminent, the most distinguished, . . . Anglo-American poet now living.”4
Frost’s gift to us in literature is a genuine democratization of poetry. He created a distinctive poetry of and for the people, which reaches through the whole history of Western Civilization to communicate its accumulated truths.
Reuben Brower wrote of the “high ironic acceptance” in this poem. He spoke, as well, of Frost’s “direct facing of inner loneliness” in this and another of his poems, “Desert Places.” And then he concludes — and this idea may be Frost’s greatest gift to us; it is certainly one of the important themes to come from the ‘20s: “But all these attitudes have their place in the large Frostian armory of defense against a world often inscrutable and often frightening when too well understood.”5 v
1 Robert Frost, The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964, p. 324.
2 Each September a group of Frost’s family, friends, and scholars gather in a symposium to remember and discuss the poet and his work. In 1999, the group met at the Bread Loaf Center, Middlebury College; in 2000 it met at the University of Michigan; this year, it is meeting on September 21 at the University of New Hampshire. Caxtonian Peter Stanlis attended this gathering.
3 Robert Cotner, “Musings,” Caxtonian, Vol. IX, No. 1, (January 2001), p. 2.
4 Jay Parini, Robert Frost, A Life, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1999, p. 403. The context of the quote is important: Eliot said, “We all have our own idiom and metric and subject matter, but I have long come to feel that there are only two kinds of poetry — good and bad. And the bad poetry can be very much of one’s own type, and the good poetry can be of a very different type. Mr. Frost is one of the good poets,…” (pp. 402-403).
5 Rueben A. Brower, The Poetry of Robert Frost — Constellations of Intention, New York: Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 128-129.
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