Acquainted with the Night (1928)
This terza rima sonnet from West Running Brook features a very different narrator from the country poet who is so familiar to us through such poems as “Birches” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Here the narrator is uncharacteristically urban. Some critics have drawn parallels to Dante’s Inferno, also written in tercets with interlocking rhymes, but the urban setting and images, speculated to be based on Ann Arbor, where Frost was living at the time of composition, seem more reminiscent of William Blake’s “London.” Frost writes, “I have outwalked the furthest city light / I have looked down the saddest city lane,” while Blake writes, “I wander thro’ each charter’d street, / Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. / And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”
The poem shares something in common with Frost’s other journey poems, such as “Into My Own.” He once again finds himself alone, only this time the setting is very different. The speaker, in a sort of soliloquy, reveals that more than once he has been “acquainted with the night.” The choice of acquainted is intriguing because it suggests a certain knowledge and familiarity without intimacy. An acquaintance is not a friend.
When the speaker says that he “has walked out in rain—and back in rain” he expresses an allencompassing awareness of the night, darkness, and what they hold. He has “outwalked the furthest city light” and “looked down the saddest city lane,” suggesting that night is associated with unexplainable sadness, but it is yet unclear whether this sadness is the speaker’s or is witnessed by the speaker. The question is whether the sadness is inherent in the lane or is the perception of the speaker. When he walks past the “watchman on his beat” and drops his eyes, “unwilling to explain,” he reflects Frost’s often coy persona. He does not say that he cannot explain but rather that he is unwilling to. The speaker’s unwillingness suggests that the sadness comes from within, not from outside, himself.
In the third stanza the speaker stands still, and the sound of feet stops. It is the sound of his own feet that is stopped, and when he hears from far away an “interrupted cry,” the poem grows more complicated. Is the cry from within or outside? The call is not meant to summon the speaker “back” or “say good-by,” writes Frost, but then, what is the cry for? Is it a cry of help? A cry of sadness, as alluded to in stanza two?
The poem’s trodding metrical feet become harder to understand between this fourth stanza and the ending couplet. The break indicated by the semicolon following “good-by” indicates a strange shift. The speaker begins to acquaint his readers with the night when he moves from the present to an “unearthly height” and a “luminary clock against the sky.” The clock is illuminated for the speaker, and its “unearthly height” suggests that it is Time, not time, with which the poem is concerned. That is, while he might be preoccupied with what seems to be earthly time, it is unearthly, transcendental time that vexes him.
When the proclamation comes from on high that “the time was neither wrong nor right,” Frost leaves his readers in the night he has created and begins again by returning to the poem’s title and first line: “I have been one acquainted with the night.”
The figure of night suggests the night that shrouds one in darkness, sadness, and contemplation in the darkest of hours. Night for Frost represents the innermost loneliness, a loneliness that keeps him isolated from those who cry out, but not for him, and from the watchman, who may or may not be aware of his presence. The speaker has scared himself with his “desert places.” Like Emily Dickinson in poems such as “I heard a Fly buzz— when I died—” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” he seems to have experienced a figurative death, as if he had been to the other side and returned to tell us about it. And now it seems that it is his own cries that are heard.
The repetition of “I have” and of “acquainted with the night” echo footfalls, suggesting that the reader accompanies the speaker into the night and must also determine whether the time is wrong or right. Jay Parini writes that Frost once said the clock “was in the tower of the old Washtenaw County Courthouse” in Ann Arbor, which would clearly indicate that there is a literal clock depicted in the poem (246). But the clock, like the night, is also symbolic. There may be an actual clock observed by the speaker, but what it represents goes beyond time as we know it.
Frost is often thought of as simply a poet of country matters, but he is much more than that. Here he places himself in a city setting. The poem flows smoothly but the speaker is ill at ease, and perhaps that is why it is a setting to which Frost does not often return. John Cunningham asserts that “One does well in Frost’s universe to be acquainted with the night, to know what it is like, but values and meaning are existential in the one who carries out his errands and keeps his promises. They are not transcendental” (270).
Brady, Patrick. “From New Criticism to Chaos and Emergence Theory: A Reinterpretation of a Poem by Robert Frost,” Synthesis: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 41–57.
Cunningham, John. “Human Presence in Frost’s Universe.” In The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, edited by Robert Faggen, 261–272. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Murray, Keat. “Robert Frost’s Portrait of a Modern Mind: The Archetypal Resonance of ‘Acquainted with the Night,’ ” Midwest Quarterly 41, no. 4 (June 2000): 370–384.
Pack, Robert. Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost. Hanover, N.H.: Middlebury College Press, 2003.
Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Holt, 1999.
Timmerman, John H. Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2002.