Beyond the Lines: Robert Frost's "Acquainted with the Night"
Robert Frost’s talent radiates best from his shorter poems. His poetic voice, naturally laconic, finds its most expressive mode in his shortest poems. The tightness of form and economy of language allows Frost to pack layers of meaning into as few words as will express them effectively. “Fire and Ice” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” exemplify this mastery.
Another poem that ranks with them is “Acquainted with the Night,” originally published in 1928 in Virginia Quarterly Review and appeared that same year in Frost’s collection, West-Running Brook. The full text of the poem is:
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.
First, the form of the poem is at once orthodox and marvelously inventive. It consists of fourteen lines – a sonnet. However, its form is neither Petrarchan (one octave and a sestet) or Shakespearean (three quatrains and a couplet). Instead, it modifies the Shakespearean form to four tercets and a couplet – the tercets taking the form of terza rima, reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy. That resemblance can hardly have been accidental: terza rima is all but synonymous with Dante’s epic. Frost was clearly evoking Dante in his simple sonnet. An exploration of the subject matter reveals why.
Frost opens with the poem’s aphoristic title. What is the night with which he is acquainted? The night of love? Of sleep? Of dreams? It is none of these. The night Frost describes in intense dramatic monologue is of aimless wandering in the rain. Sadness pervades the very city street. At times the narrative voice is ashamed – “dropped . . . eyes, unwilling to explain” its presence to the night watchman. At others it is afraid – having “stood still and stopped the sound of feet / When far away an interrupted cry / Came over houses from another street.” The cry is interrupted, indicating a struggle, and carries for blocks, indicating desperation to be heard. Yet the narrative voice does not rush to investigate or help, but merely stands still, afraid to be detected.
The narrative voice then sees the clock “at an unearthly” – that is, a heavenly – “height,” telling a time “neither wrong nor right.” The time is not wrong because the narrative voice finds the outer world of the desolate nighttime streets reflective of its inner feelings of sadness, shame, and fear. Yet neither is it right, implying that the nighttime wandering is not a natural or desirable state.
Frost then closes by repeating the opening line, at once framing the nighttime scenes as past events remembered and at the same time conveying a tone of plaintive emphasis, of a mind wandering off as words become too much. This second time around, though, the line carries meaning that it lacked at the poem’s beginning. Now that the reader has seen the sort of night with which the narrative voice is acquainted, he understands that “night” is the darkness of the human psyche, and the line rings much more somber than it did before.
The wanderings Frost describes mirror Dante’s descent into hell. The narrative voice enters a realm of darkness and solitude, which it is in, but not of. It recoils in sadness, horror, and fear at what it sees and hears, yet it sees reflected in the somber and sad outward setting the melancholy within. Whereas Dante has himself venture beyond death to glimpse the eternal realm of hell, Frost has his narrator venture beyond sleep to glimpse night as an idealization of the darkness of the afflicted mind.
Framing the poem’s description between identical first and last lines stated in the past tense also implies that the narrative voice is done with his melancholy journey – he has been acquainted with the night. Much like Dante in the Inferno, Frost’s narrative voice has been on a journey into the depths of hell, but has returned to reminisce on it. Frost’s hell, though, while it might seem external, is not; the internal hell of depression and despair turns otherwise mundane night scenes into horrifying experiences of sadness, shame, and fear: “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” (Paradise Lost, I:233-34.)
In “Acquainted with the Night,” Frost places his own stamp upon the sonnet’s form, and in doing so subtly alludes to Dante’s journey through hell in the Divine Comedy. He portrays a nighttime world made at once sad and fearsome when filtered through the narrative voice’s inner melancholy. In this masterful marriage of form and dramatic monologue, Frost gives a convincing portrayal of a “night” not of external, but internal darkness.
Every poet – indeed every person – has been “acquainted” with the night" at some time. Like Frost, the true poet will look deep into that night, for it is only by experiencing its darkness that the human mind can know and understand the light. Just as the contrast between light and shadow defines shape to the vision, life's light only becomes visible when contrasted with its darkness.
Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Indiana, where he practices as a civil and appellate litigation attorney. His poems have appeared in print and online publications, and he has published two volumes of poetry: The Spring's Autumn (2013) and Inquietude (2016). He also composes music, which may be heard on his YouTube channel. He lives with his wife, Ivana, and their two children.