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  • By Adam Sedia

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.

59 Comments


bobbyfunderburk1
bobbyfunderburk1
Aug 12, 2023

Adam, you captured this poem, one of my favorites by the Prince of New England, perfectly. I believe much, if not most, of Frost's poetry reveals a longing to be free of this world. Another, "Stopping by Woods of a Snowy Eve," The author desires to enter the "Woods...lovely, dark and deep." But- has "promises to keep" and "miles to go" before he sleeps. Calls back the ending of my own, "Road of Shadows" My soul longs to be with them

But my granddaughter's laughter Is a silver cord, pulling me And there is work to be done

That day has not yet come For me

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ajsedia
Jul 22, 2023

I'm glad to see this short article spawn so much discussion. Reading the comments, it struck me that poetry - even the concept of poetry itself - has an elusive quality that sparks such discussion. I dare say that pose cannot do that - unless the prose approaches what we call the "poetic." Even Frost, whose tone is direct, has that elusive quality that invites further exploration into his meaning.


Also, to touch on Mike Burch's comment on erotic poems, puns, and wordplay. I think in a way even these increase wisdom. Puns are funny because they reveal an underlying truth. Wordplay similarly has fun with meanings (otherwise it is simply gratuitous.) As for erotic poetry, why phrase those sentiment…

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jm6783685
jm6783685
Jul 28, 2023
Replying to

Music and painting and dance can be clever.

Music and painting and dance can be lusty.

Music and painting and dance can be erotic.

Music and painting and dance can be scary.


But there are some things that can only be conveyed in literature. And wisdom is one of them. Perhaps the chief among them. (I put it to you that what can only appear in one object must represent some sort of essence of that object. Especially if that 'what' is of supreme value.) And memorable wisdom can only appear in poetry. Rhyme and rhythm really do help you to memorise things. And important things need to be memorised. And of all things wisdom is the most important. Why?…


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Michael R. Burch
Michael R. Burch
Jul 21, 2023

I agree with Adam Sedia: "Every poet – indeed every person – has been 'acquainted' with the night" at some time." Some of the best poems ever written were poems of alienation. Indeed, some poets sounded as if they never belonged to this planet: William Blake, John Clare, Emily Dickinson, A. E. Housman, Robinson Jeffers, et al. When I started writing poetry, alienation was probably my major theme. For instance, this poem dates back to around age 14... Leave Taking

by Michael R. Burch


Brilliant leaves abandon battered limbs

to waltz upon ecstatic winds

until they die.


But the barren and embittered trees,

lament the frolic of the leaves

and curse the bleak November sky ...


Now, as I watch the…


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jm6783685
jm6783685
Jul 26, 2023
Replying to

This is blatant prejudice. Against which there is no point in arguing. You give yourself away. And so undermine your own case. Creative ambivalence or 'negative capability' or 'willing suspension of disbelief' is the only way forward. Not rigidly dogmatic entrenched positions which will brook no rational rebuttal. You merely confirm all my worst misgivings about you, and make me feel how right I've been so far. Such positions are already Hell. Nobody needs to put you there; you've put yourself there already. Since quite obviously you will never listen to reason. This does nobody any good. Your life becomes dominated by hatred. And unreason. And hatred leads to nothing. (And unreason even less.)


Least of all poetry.

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jm6783685
jm6783685
Sep 18, 2021

This though it is a good poem is very uncharacteristic of Frost. (Largely I suspect because it is one of his few poems in which he lays aside his habitual mask. In fact he hardly asserts his personality in this poem at all.) And for this reason it stands out from the rest of his oeuvre. I agree that Frost's shorter poems tend to be his best. The terza rima sonnet is a long recognised form of the sonnet. The sonnet being much more flexible than many people assume. I number about eight different forms of the sonnet. And if you add hybrids between the forms there are even more. Then there is the soneta caudata. So sonnets are not…

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drleach1953
Jul 20, 2023
Replying to

Very nice essay and an insighful reply. I realized upon reading it that the terza rima sonnet is also the form of Shelley' stanzas in the "Ode to the West Wind".

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martinmccarthy1956
martinmccarthy1956
Sep 17, 2021

I have always liked this poem. I read it again earlier this week, and it has been in my mind ever since. So this, for me, it a very timely article. Thanks, Adam, for writing so well about it.

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Michael R. Burch
Michael R. Burch
Jul 21, 2023
Replying to

"Acquainted with the Night" has long been one of my favorite Frosties, along with the lovely "To Earthward" and the magnificent "Directive" — three poems that demonstrate his range as a poet. "Acquainted with the Night" was an influence on one of my teenage poems, written around age 18 or 19: Mare Clausum

by Michael R. Burch


These are the narrows of my soul—

dark waters pierced by eerie, haunting screams.

And these uncharted islands bleakly home

wild nightmares and deep, strange, forbidding dreams.


Please don’t think to find pearls’ pale, unearthly glow

within its shoals, nor corals in its reefs.

For, though you seek to salvage Love, I know

that vessel lists, and night brings no relief.


Pause here, and…


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