Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost: Summary and Analysis

Acquainted with the Night is a sonnet that appeared in the volume West-Running Brook written in 1928. It records, in the first person, the poet's sojourn in the night. The poem focuses on the quest for some kind of meaningful epiphany in a world of Lucretian indifference, impersonality and otherness, a quest that is apparently frustrated. The poet has been the one who is well-known for the night both as a nocturnal wanderer and as a sufferer.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

He has walked out in rain and has come back in rain. He has gone as far as the last post of light in the city. He has moved into the darkest and least main tamed lane of the city. He has crossed the watchman on his regular duty and dropped his eyes out of listlessness towards him; he did not want to explain to the watchman as to why he had come out in that hour of the night. The poet-city walker has stood still and halted his further movement when he heard a sort of mixed cry coming over houses from another street. But this cry was not made either to call him back or to say good-bye to him. And still further, at a heavenly height, there was a brilliantly shining clock which stood fixed with a tower against the sky, and which made the declaration that time was neither wrong nor right.

Acquainted with the Night is one of the most celebrated poems of Robert Frost. It is praised for its supreme and calculated reticence, its insistence on understatement, its refusal to say more than the poet thinks or feels. There is impressively silent protest against "the night" and against "the time was neither wrong nor right". Typically Frostian rather than American in its character, the poem is a non-committal and indecisive one. The firm thread of the rhyming five-foot lines, as Elizabeth Jennings would say, "reflects the first thought of the poet, his resolve not to be swayed one way or the other by the suggestiveness of the scene". In short, Frost displays here the 'negative capability', the decision to rest among uncertainties and not to draw dogmas too easily out of deeply felt personal experiences. When Frost says:

 Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right, I have been one acquainted with the night.

He is not laying claim to a sense of darkness and deprivation which is unknown to other men; he is neither making a defiant gesture nor seeking comfort. He is simply describing, with immense restraint, a mood which is well known to all men and women of sensibility and with inquisitive minds. The immense power of self-restraint shown by the poet herein is certainly appreciable.

The poem leaves on the reader's mind the impression of utter loneliness and desolation. In the words of Brower, "Acquainted with the Night catches the essence of earlier experiences of terror and loneliness, turning them into a perfect lyric of recognition and confession.” There are no statements about truth implied, only the plainest record of a city-walker's comings and goings, hearings and seeing. There is quite a history of discovery, both outer and inner night in:

I have looked down the saddest city lane I have passed by the watchman on his beat Ana 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 Come over houses from another street

The tone of utter detachment in which the poet portrays his loneliness accounts for the poem's special quality. Frost's lonely walker is isolated in another way, in utter personal, moral and historical homelessness. As hinted, above, Acquainted with the Night is highly rich in suggestive quality. No prayers are suggested, no resources beyond the simple human acquaintance with all that the bare narrative implies. The plainness, the unvarnished factual character of the telling, the surest evidence that command has been attained. The control, the poise, is also continuously present in the terza rima  ABA CDC DAD AA  (third rhyme, which is exceptionally difficult to write in English) in which isolated sounds are sights call to one another across a narrative clearly measured out in distinct sentence and stanza units. By all manner of poetic skills Frost takes the reader a moment beyond good and evil, in which absence of design is faced and met.

The poet has used some allusions: 'Night' is associated with gloom, ignorance and suffering, just as 'light' is linked with happiness, purity and knowledge. If one takes the meaning of 'night' this way, then many phrases and words that follow in the following lines will be interpreted symbolically, -such words and phrases, for instance, as 'rain', 'the furthest city light', 'the saddest city lane', 'beat', 'dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain', 'stood still', 'stopped the sound of feet', 'an interrupted cry', 'another street', 'to call me or to say good-bye', 'unearthly height', 'clock', 'the time was neither wrong nor right', etc.

The expression "the time was neither wrong nor right" has the deep suggestion that takes us beyond both good and evil. This is a Lucretian comment on the modern age. Descriptions such as this one link Frost with Baudelaire and other French Symbolists who were dissatisfied with the sordidness, sadness, ennui and boredom which characterize the contemporary urban life. Frost is not so harsh in satirizing the modern city and time as the Symbolists were, or as T. S. Eliot was. Here in this line, or even in the entire poem, the poet has made comments on the contemporary scene with utmost indifference and poise.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost: Summary and Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 29 Oct. 2017,