When the spent sun throws up its rays on cloud
And goes down burning into the gulf below,
No voice in nature is heard to cry aloud
At what has happened. Birds, at least must know
It is the change to darkness in the sky.
Murmuring something quiet in her breast,
One bird begins to close a faded eye;
Or overtaken too far from his nest,
Hurrying low above the grove, some waif
Swoops just in time to his remembered tree.
At most he thinks or twitters softly, ‘Safe!
Now let the night be dark for all of me.
Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.’
First appearing in West Running Brook, this sonnet represents a sense of both yielding to nature and exhibiting a healthy respect for it. Near the beginning of the poem the speaker points out that no voice in nature gives a cry when the sun goes down. He says that nothing is disturbed by “what has happened.” Frost’s choice of “happened” almost suggests that the sun’s going down is something that has happened to someone or something. It is not merely that it occurred, but that there should be some reason and concern for it. The idea is that nature ought to see the sunset as some sort of death or some sort of sad event, but without mourning. It is as if the speaker were accounting for nature’s inability to reason and suggesting that since it should not know why the sun has gone down, it ought to be fearful when it does, since fear often is rooted in ignorance. In some way, lack of knowledge ought to cause trepidation among birds, but it does not.
The speaker seems almost to envy nature’s unconcern for the passing of light or the passing of time, and he recognizes that human beings cannot be so indifferent. We do mourn the falling of leaves and the setting of the sun, and we do lament the passing of time, but among these birds there is an acceptance of the inevitable that does not question. There is a willingness simply to allow nature to do its duty. Juxtaposed with this, however, is the speaker’s assessment that “Birds, at least, must know.” The idea that nature is not knowledgeable is reconsidered, and instead the narrator asserts that nature must be aware of itself. (These sorts of contradictions often appear in Frost; a similar contradiction can be found in The Road Not Taken.) That the bird does know and can accept that the sun has gone and will return again is what the poem hinges on. Other creatures are able to accept in nature what occurs naturally. For humankind, this is a much more difficult task.
The ending of the poem provides a sentient bird who “At most he thinks or twitters softly, ‘Safe!’ ” There is a sense of almost human fear ascribed to the bird, and yet the bird, despite his exclamation, “Safe!,” goes on to accept the darkness and his inability to see into the future. Indeed, he says, “Let what will be, be.” This acceptance is something the speaker desires, because just letting be is not something humans can fully do. This poem ends on a note both resigned and hopeful—a tone of acceptance. The scheme of things, life and the world, has been reduced to one nightfall, which is accepted as a natural occurrence that can be yielded to without subjugation.
But nothing is ever as simple as it seems in Frost. The title, “Acceptance,” alerts the reader that the poem is about anything but. While it seems that the bird is accepting of the darkness, he too is haunted by it. There is a touch of sarcasm in the phrase, “Let what will be, be.” The bird says, “Now let the night be dark for all of me. / Let the night be too dark for me to see.” This darkness is unpleasant and enveloping. It is not so much acceptance that is being witnessed, but a sort of repression. Ultimately, the bird is no better equipped to accept the scheme of things than humans are, and the irony of the title is that the poem is really about the inability to accept. In “Acceptance,” nature’s power is evident, but so is the desire to accept that power as a given and not to resist it. Frost is, however, uncomfortable with nature’s powers, despite the assertion in the poem that those powers should not be challenged. The speaker is observing what nature does and wondering what importance it has for him, and he is trying to diminish its power by denying how unsettling it can be.
Bagby, George F. Frost and the Book of Nature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.