Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Acquainted With The Night"

Edward Thomas's "Out in the Dark" concludes with the following stanza:

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

I suggested in my previous post that "if you love it not" is quintessential Thomas.  It is also one of those phrases that sounds like quintessential Robert Frost.  After Thomas's death, Frost once referred to him as "the only brother I ever had."  There are lines and stanzas -- even entire poems -- that sound as if they could have been written by either of them.

This has to do with the beauty of the words, but it also has to do with the use to which the words are put.  Often, this use entails the sort of wondrous, seemingly out-of-the-blue twist embodied in "if you love it not": a twist that flows back through the entire poem and gives it -- suddenly -- a breadth and depth that can take your breath away.

           Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1918-1924)

          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-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.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).

Thomas and Frost were both well-acquainted with the night.  Night means darkness -- literally and figuratively; outside and inside.  But, remember: "if you love it not . . ."  

            Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1911-1914)


Fred said...


Would you recommend this as the best collection of Thomas' poetry?

Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

WAS said...

Nice description of the effect those subtle word plays have on the reader, Stephen. That's part of what I would call the incantatory role of poetry, where normal phrasings are adjusted into slower,less logical, more hypnotic turns. Thomas and Frost are both great examples of that, especially in the way they rely so heavily on the iambic pulse. I confess I haven't read "Acquainted with the Night" since I was in second grade (not that I don't vividly remember it!). Coming to it again now, I see an uncanny resemblance to another poem I've let slip into unconsciousness through familiarity, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I suppose I'm not the first person to notice that.


Chris Matarazzo said...

One of my favorite poems of all time, Stephen. And one of my least favorite literature lessons of all time occurred as a result of having read it. I had a professor who spent about an hour on "unwilling to explain." The prof. was obsessed with proving the speaker to be a serial killer or something. It sometimes amazes me (stuffy comment alert) how people cannot see the complex poetic simplicity of some statements -- that one in particular. If you don't get a statement like that, you don't get Frost.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: yes, the Longley edition is definitely the one that you should get. It supersedes the previous collected edition by R. George Thomas from 1978.

Longley's annotations are invaluable. She is probably the leading authority on Thomas at this time. She provides passages from Thomas's prose works and letters that relate to each poem, as well as textual variants. Moreover, her annotations are like miniature essays on each poem. And, fortunately, her commentary is not jargon-ridden: she provides a reasonable discussion of the poem, usually relating it to other parts of his work and/or his life.

I just checked around, and the best source for it is probably Amazon UK, which has copies in stock. It is listed as unavailable on Amazon US. (Don't worry, I don't have any financial interest in Amazon UK! But I have found that, when it comes to books published in the UK (like Bloodaxe Books), it is the best source.)

Thanks for dropping by. Happy New Year!

Stephen Pentz said...

Bill: it's good to hear from you again.

I hadn't thought of "Prufrock" in connection with "Acquainted with the Night," but I can see some atmospheric resemblances. I wonder what Frost thought of Eliot's work?

Thanks for your thoughts throughout the year. Happy New Year!

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: sometimes it seems like the job of the professoriate is to destroy the enjoyment of poetry, doesn't it? The funny/sad part is, he probably felt that he was really on to something. People like him don't know what to make of poets like Frost, Edward Thomas, Hardy, and Larkin, do they? (Which is why we have, for example, an Ezra Pound industry in the universities.)

I agree with you: Frost was definitely over his head. (I can't imagine what he would do with "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.")

As always, it's good to hear from you. Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

I keep stumbling over your blog and continue to be charmed by it.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you for the kind words. I'm pleased that you found your way here. I hope that you'll return.