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Analysis of Poem "Acquainted with the Night" by Robert Frost

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Robert Frost and a Summary of Acquainted with the Night

Robert Frost's Acquainted with the Night is a poem that takes the reader into the dark side of the human psyche.

Using full rhyme in terza rima form (iambic tercets), Frost's first person speaker - I have been...I have walked...I have outwalked... - gradually diminishes as the poem progresses, only emerging again in the last line.

It is a carefully measured, deeply intense poem, the syntax enhancing the tension as the speaker walks on, through the emotional night, the moon the only guide to time, neither wrong nor right.

On the surface, it is a short, uninspiring journey on foot through the streets of a city at night. Delve a little deeper however and this poem reveals much more, in typical Frost fashion.

'Poetry provides one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another' said Frost.

You can see this idea emerge again and again in his poems. Acquainted with the Night is perhaps one of his most extreme examples. There is a whole night in the poem and a whole life.

Frost was no stranger to despair. He lost two sons, one through suicide, and two daughters when young—another developed mental illness. Family stresses over a number of years induced depression and black moods. He found some consolation in his poetry.

The poem was first published in the magazine Virginia Quarterly Review in 1927 and appeared in his book West-Running Brook in 1928.

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.

Analysis of Acquainted with the Night

A poem of fourteen lines in total, known as a terza rima, that is, successive tercets with a couplet ending, rhyming aba bcb cdc dad aa.

This is a closed and locked traditional form of iambic pentameter, five stresses per line, ten beats, creating a steady rhythmical pattern, akin to walking not too fast, not too slow. The rhymes form a kind of loose chain, apt for such a poem as this.

It's said that rhyme 'sweetens the pain', and certainly it would be interesting to re-work Frost's poem into non-rhyming tercets, but the brevity of Acquainted with the Night leaves the reader with just enough darkness to see by.

Note the repetition, anaphora, of I have, which drives home the monotony of dull routine and necessary reinforcement of the past. It's as if the speaker's self is reminding everyone that this has really happened; you have to go a long way before you get to where you want to be. The road has been tough.

Irony is suggested by the use of the word acquainted, which is when we know of something or someone but at a distance. It's a word far removed from befriended or intimate with.

Further Analysis of Acquainted with the Night

This short poem takes the reader into the mind of a speaker looking back at their life with a certain chill detachment. Here is someone who has journeyed deep into their own psyche and discovered darkness, despite being in a city surrounded by many others.

The night could well be a metaphor for depression, despair and loneliness. It could be Frost's own inner world that is being expressed, but the language used means that this could be anyone who has ever existed and gone through challenging times.

Dante used the terza rima form for The Divine Comedy, and Frost's poem echoes the descent into a dark place where time has no meaning and words are useless.

Depression is like this for many people - it comes without reason and cannot be understood by those who have never experienced it.

In this kind of world, identity goes through a crisis. There may be guilt, there may be a sense of hopelessness, a sense that some kind of threshold has to be gone through to regain confidence and light.

When the speaker comes across another human, the watchman, there is no eye contact but a turning away, a sign of shyness, guilt and lack of self-esteem. Something inside needs to come out - perhaps it won't ever manifest - buried deep in the heart and soul.

The isolation continues, becoming more cold and cruel and distant. A cry has no effect; the speaker knows it will have no connection with his life. This individual is friendless, perhaps homeless and almost hopeless.

And who can judge this individual? Time cannot judge; the moon set high in the sky declares this. Nature is indifferent, as is time. The speaker accepts that darkness is part of the human condition. It has to be faced alone.


The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey