Week 470: Acquainted with the Night, by Robert Frost

When I first read this poem, which would have been in my teens, I’m pretty sure I got it badly wrong. Personally ever since I was a child I have loved being out at night – the moon casting its copper glow on flat white shapes of broken cloud like ice-floes, the peppery scent of leaves in the autumnal darkness of a lane, in winter the gray silk of frost on pavements glittering with a million points of light – and I took this at first to be a celebration by a fellow enthusiast, similarly revelling in the quiet and solitude. It later dawned on me that this was much more a poem of alienation, in which Frost is using external darkness to mirror the darker side of his own often troubled mind. And yet I wonder if I was not totally wrong the first time, if there is after all a hint of relish in that alienation, that apartness, in being, as Frost puts it in another poem, ‘the exception/I like to think I am in everything’. Either way, it is a fine evocation of that halfworld that most of us these days simply draw the curtains against.

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.

Robert Frost

Week 469: Anniversaries, by Douglas Dunn

This week another poem from Douglas Dunn’s 1985 volume ‘Elegies’, written in memory of his first wife who died young. It is a collection that I find intensely moving, and also very skilful: I love the lilting movement of poems like this.

Note on the last verse: the beautifully precise word ‘longanimous’ means ‘patient with a suggestion of long-suffering’ – I believe Dunn was a goodish club-level runner in his younger days, so I take it the image here is one of his wife coming along even in the rain to cheer him on.

Roukenglen, Kelvingrove and Inchinnan are names associated with the Glasgow area of Renfrewshire.


Day by nomadic day
Our anniversaries go by,
Dates anchored in an inner sky,
To utmost ground, interior clay.

It was September blue
When I walked with you first, my love,
In Roukenglen and Kelvingrove,
Inchinnan’s beech-wood avenue.

That day will still exist
Long after I have joined you where
Rings radiate the dusty air
And bangles bind each powdered wrist.

Here comes that day again.
What shall I do? Instruct me, dear,
Longanimous encourager,
Sweet soul in the athletic rain
And wife now to the weather.

Douglas Dunn

Week 468: Prayer, by Dana Gioia

This week a strange but hauntingly lyrical poem by the American poet Dana Gioia (b. 1950), a sturdy defender of such unfashionable values in verse as form and meaning, whose work has steadily grown on me over the years. I think the key to this poem lies in the death of the poet’s firstborn son in infancy (see also week 140). But who or what exactly is being addressed in this prayer of intercession, and being described in the remarkable series of kennings that form the poem’s build-up? Gioia has a Catholic background, but I think readers are to some extent free to make their own interpretation: God if you like, or Death, or whatever mystery lies behind the making and unmaking of this world.


Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.

Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires.

Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough –
in the shadow of the rainfall,

in the brief violet darkening a sunset –
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.

Dana Gioia

Week 467: To bring the dead to life, by Robert Graves

An intriguing if slightly macabre insight into Robert Graves’s way of working, though perhaps more in his role as a historical novelist than as a poet. One anecdote relates how he would become so absorbed in recreating a particular character that he would lay a place for him at dinner. I can’t say that my own forgetfulness has ever gone that far, but I will say that sometimes when translating a poem from another language I will begin by just writing out the literal meaning and then it is as if the words start to rearrange themselves, with an unseen hand suggesting a rhyme here, a rhythm there, and I am no more than a passive observer watching patterns in a verbal kaleidoscope swirl and settle. As a firm rationalist I don’t believe that this is anything more than some kind of mental muscle memory at work, but I can see how those so inclined might feel that there is something spooky going on.

To bring the dead to life

To bring the dead to life
Is no great magic.
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man’s embers
And a live flame will start.
Let his forgotten griefs be now,
And now his withered hopes;
Subdue your pen to his handwriting
Until it prove as natural
To sign his name as yours.
Limp as he limped,
Swear by the oaths he swore;
If he wore black, affect the same;
If he had gouty fingers,
Be yours gouty too.
Assemble tokens intimate of him —
A ring, a hood, a desk:
Around these elements then build
A home familiar to
The greedy revenant.
So grant him life, but reckon
That the grave which housed him
May not be empty now:
You in his spotted garments
Shall yourself lie wrapped.

Robert Graves

Week 466: Cofio, by Waldo Williams

Waldo Williams (1904-1971) ranks as one of the most influential and beloved of twentieth-century Welsh-language poets, a mystic, pacifist, Welsh nationalist and passionate teacher. His country was the Preselis, an upland range in north Pembrokeshire, that I walked the length of a few years back, a wild lonely land of wind and sheep, tumbledown cairns, Bronze Age tracks dark and springy with peat, wheatears perched on doleritic outcrops and the mewling cry of buzzards overhead.

‘Cofio’ is one of Waldo’s most celebrated poems, dealing with memory and things beyond memory. The translation that follows is my own.


Un funud fach cyn elo’r haul o’r wybren,
Un funud fwyn cyn delo’r hwyr i’w hynt,
I gofio am y pethau anghofiedig
Ar goll yn awr yn llwch yr amser gynt.
Fel ewyn ton a dyr ar draethell unig,
Fel cân y gwynt lle nid oes glust a glyw,
Mì wn eu bod yn galw’n ofer arnom –
Hen bethau anghofiedig dynol ryw.
Camp a chelfyddyd y cenhedloedd cynnar,
Aneddau bychain a neuaddau mawr,
Y chwedlau cain a chwalwyd ers canrifoedd
Y duwiau na ŵyr neb amdanynt ‘nawr.
A geiriau bach hen ieithoedd diflanedig,
Hoyw yng ngenau dynion oeddynt hwy,
A thlws i’r clust ym mharabl plant bychaìn,
Ond tafod neb ni eilw arnynt mwy.
O, genedlaethau dirifedi daear,
A’u breuddwyd dwyfol a’u dwyfoldeb brau,
A erys ond tawelwch i’r calonnau
Fu gynt yn llawenychu a thristáu?
Mynych ym mrig yr hwyr, a mi yn unig,
Daw hiraeth am eich ‘nabod chwi bob un;
A oes a’ch deil o hyd mewn Cof a Chalon,
Hen bethau anghofiedig teulu dyn?

Waldo Willams


One brief moment as the sun is setting,
One quiet moment as the night comes on
To bring to mind the things that are forgotten,
Lost now in the dust of time long gone.

Like the white foam of waves on lonely beaches
Like the wind’s song when there is none to hear
I know that they are calling to us, vainly –
The old forgotten things we once held dear.

The cunning and the craft of early peoples
That built alike small dwelling and great hall,
The well-wrought legends lost among the ages,
The gods of old gone now beyond recall.

The little words of languages long vanished
That once were merry on the lips of men
And lovely in the lisping of small children
That no tongue now will ever speak again.

And all the earth’s unnumbered generations,
Their pious dreams and fragile piety,
Is nothing left in all those hearts but silence
Where gladness and where grief were wont to be?

Often in the dusk, as I sit lonely,
Great longing comes, to bring you all to mind.
Do heart and memory somewhere still hold you,
You old forgotten things of humankind?