Acquainted With The Night: Poem - Summary & Analysis

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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.

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.
Acquainted With The Night

Summary and Analysis


      Acquainted with the Night, a sonnet is one of the best poems written by Robert Frost. It was first published in a volume entitled West-Running Brook, in 1928. To over-simplify the contents, one could say that the subject of the poem is the feeling of loneliness that enwraps one while walking late at night in a strange city. The poem could also be read at a symbolic level. It is an expression of the poet's sense of personal loneliness in a strange and unfamiliar world. The huge luminary clock that tells him that the time is neither right nor wrong could be taken to be a symbol of the relativism which is the basic cause of his melancholy in this poem. The poet demonstrates that his predicament, his situation, is thoroughly within his grasp.


      The lyric is intricately woven and has a close-knit structure. It is possible to interpret the poem on various levels. Read at the simplest level, it is a record of the comings, and goings, the sounds heard and the things seen in the dead silence of the night, by a city-walker, presumably the poet himself. Ina very simple and straightforward manner, the poet tells us that one night, wrapped in a mantle of darkness he walked down the silent streets up to the farthest limits of the city. The rains had stripped the roads of all their life and vitality - they were lonely and desolate like the poet himself. The poet builds up a very lonely, sad and cheerless scene with a remarkable precision and a sense of immediacy. In some respects, Frost is as modern and as classical as Baudelaire, Dante and T.S. Eliot. "The saddest city-lane" immediately links up the protagonist or this poem with Eliot's Prufrock - a symbol of all the minus points of modern society.

      The scene is that of a dark, rainy night. The streets are lonely and the only human figure visible was that of the watchman who was out on duty The poet passes him, with downcast eyes. He does not want to explain why he does this. We could speculate that perhaps he himself does not know. He, perhaps, wants to avoid the watchman, because he would ask him the cause of being out at that late hour. The poet has not done anything wrong but he knows that it is impossible for him to explain why he is out at that time. He is on the street because he is provoked by a sense of utter loneliness, isolation and a feeling of meaninglessness; and these feelings are beyond communication. In this way, the poet is able to bring out the meanness, the pettiness and compartmental estrangement between individuals. Constant misunderstanding is the only source of communication here.

      The poet's walk is disturbed by a sudden shrill cry - a voice comes across the houses from another street. He listens to it in complete silence and tries to interpret it. It is not addressed to him. It is a vague cry, perhaps epitomizing the inner cry of every individual's soul which is restless and unsatiated - the state of every sensitive individual dwelling in cities. The poet's personal melancholy acquires a universal significance and is symbolic of the "ache of modernity". Like a great and universal artist, the poet moves from the personal to the impersonal.

      The poet then tells us that he observed a clocktower with its luminary clock, the tower almost touching the sky. When it struck the hour, to the poet, it seemed that instead of telling what hour of the day it was, the clock was making a proclamation "the time was neither right nor wrong." With this expression, the poet brings us into a realm which is beyond nature, beyond good and beyond evil. The poet here seems to suggest that the universe is as impersonal, detached and mechanical, though systematic, like a clock. It has no sense of right or wrong and is therefore never caught in moral dilemmas. It might be interpreted as the poet's inability to make a moral choice. Frost only investigates and explores; he lacks Eliot's conviction and decision. Yvor Winters rightly terms him to be a "spiritual drifter".

Critical Analysis:

      This is one of the poems that has been admired and loved alike by readers and critics. It is a fine, reflective lyric in which the personal element is very striking. Critics, one after the other, have lavished praise on the poem. For Unterrneyer, it is "a record of personal melancholy touched with terror". The repetition of the last line "I have been one acquainted with the Night" is as effective and important as that of the last line of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It is the epitome of the entire meaning of the poet's experience. It is an apt ending to the lyric Loneliness is the most prominent, dominating, pervading and lingering feeling in the poem. Brower, a keen critic of Frost, has very rightly pointed out that in some of the earlier poems of Frost, the same shadows of loneliness were looming large. "I personally feel in this poem the intensity of the pangs of loneliness is much greater than in any of the earlier poems". It might be rightly said that in intensity of emotions and the capacity of conveying the sense of loneliness, this poem is an assimilation, a culmination, a summation of earlier poems. Brower feels that Acquainted with the Night catches the essence of earlier experiences of terror and loneliness, turning them into a perfect lyric of recognition and confession. What gets into the poem is immense - so much or city and personal desolation and sorrow that only an "inhuman reader" in Frost's sense would attempt to put all the implications into words. There are no statements about the truths implied, only the plainest record of a city walker's comings and going, hearings and seeing. There is quite a history of discovery both of outer and inner night in:

I have looked down the saddest city lane
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain...

and another history, of violence real or imagined, in

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street...

      This point brings out with a remarkable immediacy the sordidness and sense of isolation which haunts every individual feels that are natural bi-products of city life. In this sense, Frost has a natural affinity with Baudelaire and Dante. Randall Jarrell says that this poem links up Frost with Dante. Brower goes on to say that like all seers of modern city life, the poem links up Frost with Baudelaire, too, "It is Frost's Westminster Bridge, his special transformation of a city scene. The contrast in the direction in which the vision moves in Frost's poem as compared with Wordsworth's is characteristic. Both poets acknowledge ugliness, Wordsworth moves towards brightness and serenity, the city like a natural wonder "open to the fields and the sky." Frost moves toward deeper and unearthly darkness, toward a city of dreadful night outside nature:

And further still at an unearthly height.
One luminary clock against the sky...
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right

      But it is the detachment of the observer in Frost's poem that accounts Or its special quality. Wordsworth's morning walker reaches detachment, Too, though there is a submerged feeling that the city's awakening life will Put an end to "that serene and blessed mood. Frost's walker s isolation is an utterly personal and a historical one.

      This poem illustrates amply, the all-pervading qualities of reticence and suggestiveness that are found in Frost's poetry, Elizabeth Jennings articulates this point very eloquently when she says: "The most interesting thing about this poem is its supreme and calculated reticence, its insistence on understatement, its refusal to say more than the poet thinks or feels. In this, it is typically Frostian, in another sense, it is rather uncharacteristic; it shows Frost simply setting a scene, and the opportunity to draw a moral or conclusive statement from it. The resonance and power of the poem reside entirely in its implications, in the possibilities of interpretation which the poet lays before the reader. It is a non-committal poem, but it is by no means indecisive one...". Frost displays here the "negative capability", the decision to leave uncertainties as they are and not to draw dogmas too easily out of deeply felt personal experiences.

      Though the poem is triggered off by the isolation of a single individual, it is something to which we can respond too. It is in this sense a poem of the common man, being honored by a rare quality - namely, universality. Brower has tried to fish out the deeper implications of the poem from the wealth of suggestiveness in which the poem abounds in. He says that there is no supernatural communication, no prayers implied in the poem. The poet does not employ resources other than plain, human acquaintance with all that the narrative encompasses. The sureness of thought imparts a plain matter-of-fact quality to the narrative. The poise, the equilibrium, "that still moment containing the dance" (T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets) is continuously present throughout the poem. Uniting all his artistic skill and cerebral element, Frost performs a Herculean task - he takes his reader into a moment that is beyond time and beyond the conceptions of good and evil, right and wrong. And then he makes him face a void - a limbo that is sans design.

      The question that troubles critics is what Frost implies in the word Night. Night can be interpreted as a manifold symbol. Firstly, we can say that by Night Frost means the spiritual darkness and moral ignorance mantling us. Secondly, Night could easily be taken to means the gnawing sense of loneliness, alienation and isolation that haunt individuals. It also conveys to us the sordid meanness of city life - the muck and roar of city life. Fourthly, it is a complete symbol of the "ache of modernity". Finally, we may say the Night is perhaps a very concrete reminder of man's limitations - an obstacle in man's understanding of and communication with God and this creation.

Paraphrase: Line by Line Explanation

      Line. 1: I have been...with the night - This is the opening line of the poem and it sets the tone and mood of the poem. The profundity of thought contained in the poem is contrasted with the striking, casual and characteristically simple style. Frost seems to attain perfection of style in its modulated understatement and calculated ambiguity. From the style of the first line, in the use of 'have been' which implies something pertaining to the past, Nitchie comments that at a cursory glance the statements in the poem seem to create a world of indifference, detachment, impersonality and estrangement - a Lucretian world. The theme, the crux of the poem is the protagonist's quest to discover some meaningful epiphany in this world. To all appearances, the very quest is nipped in the bud. Yet the final impact, the first and the last impression, is not that of frustration.

      Line. 2: I have rain - The accent or the stress is on have and the pause after the first rain gives it an additional depth. The poet conveys with conviction that something did really happen or may have happened. Louise Bogan remarks aptly: "Frost's later poems indicate that he knows more than he ever allows himself to say, but in this poem it is difficult to see any alternative that would not be moralistic, thus limiting and falsifying the poem's legitimate complex ambiguities."

      Line. 4: I have lane - In these lines Frost brings out the sordidness, the horror and the boredom of contemporary urban life, thus proving his kinship with Baudelaire and other seers of the modern city.

      Line. 6. And explain - By now the city-walker had become saturated with the scenes of horror and boredom confronting him. His courage was exhausted and his wish to talk about these scenes wavered. Perhaps, a sense of listlessness was all-pervading in him - this is the only way one could account for " the unwillingness to explain."

      Line. 7: I have stood...sound of feet - The protagonist in the poem, who is a city-walker, is so immensely awed by the sombre atmosphere of the night that he does not want the rebelling sound of the slightest noise to raise its head in the domain of this terrible silence.

      Line. 8-9: When far away...another street - The cry from a distant, unknown place is not defined and is shrouded in the gloom of mystery. It is in complete consonance with the atmosphere and the mood the poet wants to depict. It enhances the dark, mysterious aura of the night and lends to it some elements of dark, unfathomable mystery.

      Line. 11-13: And Further...nor right - It is remarkable that the huge "luminary clock" did not point out the exact time - time, as it is measured on earth. It only told that the time was neither wrong nor right. The line, the time was neither wrong nor right", implies the suggestion that this huge luminary clock took one into realms where neither good nor evil had relevance.

      Line. 14: I have been...the night - The repetition of this line makes the poem effective and leaves a lasting impression on the mind. It also completes a stylistic cyclic pattern. The repetition makes the same impact in this poem, as it does in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. In one place, Elizabeth Shepley says of Frost that "In the heart of his starkest tragedy we find the old New England effort to shy tenderness or in a whimsical humor that often verges on irony. In this poem, the facts are Lucretian but the emotional ambivalence with which they are invested, and perhaps compromised, is Lucretian only as one possibility among others."


      Nitchie's observation about the poem seems to provide in apt conclusion to this elaborate discussion of the poem. "It is worth noting that 'Acquainted with the Night' is one of Frost's relatively rare poems that are worked out entirely in urban terms remote from his preferred world or farm and countryside; it may be that not only the time but place as well is neither wrong nor right."

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