Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night”, while fairly straightforward in poetical form, nonetheless carries a conceptual and narrative depth. This is arguably because of the almost universal sentiment Frost is attempting to communicate in his poem, a sentiment coupled with a certain archetypical imagery, above all dominated by the sadness evoked by night, which conveys his message. This message is one that is informed by a sadness, however also simultaneously evokes a contemplative reflection, whereby it seems that Frost wishes to express the sentiments of an individual who has experienced regrets and negative moments, but nevertheless approaches them with a certain existential calm.
Frost is explicit at the outset of the poem of a darkness that forms this existential drama:
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.
The imagery is direct and does not cause ambiguity. Frost plays with the universal imagery of night against day, of light against darkness. By suggesting that he is one acquainted with the night, the protagonist of Frost’s poem suggests that he is one who has experienced precisely this darkness. The simple and basic archetypal imagery is continued, as Frost mentions “rain”: a clear contrast to imageries of light, invoking a lack of existential trauma, marks the protagonist’s experiences with a form of crisis.
In the last line of the opening stanza, Frost repeats this theme with less classic, but also perhaps more revealing imagery. “To outwalk the furthest city light”, here compared and linked to the experiences of night and rain, suggests that the protagonist is one whose experience of darkness and depression is the result of a certain distancing from a community. The city lights, as symbolic of an urbanism, immediately brings to mind the notions of human relationships: to essentially go beyond these relationships, is to enter a solitude.
This clarifies the type of existential crisis the narrator is attempting to express: it is one that appears to have been brought upon by solitude. Furthermore, this solitude seems to have been an act of autonomy, an individual decision: the narrator has departed from these relationships on his own choice, having decided to leave behind the urban scene symbolic of these bonds. While this is an individual choice, it is not yet clear at this stage of the poem as to whether if this choice was perhaps a reaction to a particular relationship, one that forced him to depart in this metaphorical sense from other relationships.
This open question is perhaps clarified in the subsequent stanza, where the narrator is suddenly transported back to the heart of the city center. Frost notes that he has “looked down the saddest city lane”, while the first reference to another person appears in the following line, “I have passed by the watchman on his beat.” Frost here shows that he is using the city as a metaphor for some type of relationship: even in the heart of relationships, one can feel an emptiness. Frost therefore wishes to expand upon the thought of the initial stanza: solitude is not only established from a physical departure from a place, but here, of course, symbolically, one can experience such solitude amidst others. This is a deeply personal sadness that Frost is wishing to communicate.
The choice of the symbol of the night watchman is in this regard also revealing. The watchman is one who is supposed to keep an eye on those around him, who is to notice those around him. The narrator of the poem nevertheless “dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.” The symbol of an awareness of others, here manifested in the form of the watchman, is deliberately ignored by Frost’s narrator, thus once again re-enforcing the motif that it is a certain self-conscious decision that has shaped the narrator’s choice to, in some sense, break with relationships and community, for whatever reason, this is not yet clear.
This sadness seems to become more precise in the following stanzas, where Frost writes:
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street.
While deliberately ignoring the night watchman, Frost’s narrator has nevertheless not become entirely distanced from humankind: at the sound of some interrupted cry, his walk around the city, arguably symbolic of his retreat inside himself, is nonetheless for a moment halted. The narrator in other words only responds to a similar feeling of distress as to one the narrator feels. Normal forms of human interaction, as though displayed in the scene with the night watchmen, are of no consequence to him: the only relationship to another that can mean something to the narrator is one that is equally distressed as his own. With this contrast, Frost therefore establishes that the existential pain experienced by the narrator has in a sense made him benumbed to all other forms of social interaction and normativities: it is rather only through an encounter with a similar form of depression that can make his own depression, perhaps only for a moment, slip away.
Frost specifies what is at stake in the poem with the crucial next stanza:
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still and unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky.
That which has broken Frost’s narrator from his introvert and inwardly focused depression is a cry from another human being, and more specifically from someone who the narrator wishes would call him back or at least say some parting words. It becomes more clear at this stage that the reason for the depression is a failed relationship, and more specifically, a relationship that has been ended not by the narrator, but by the narrator’s partner in this relationship. What appears at the outset of the poem to have been the narrator’s autonomous choice to depart the realm of human relationships now becomes clearer: it is a choice that is nevertheless the result of being hurt by these same relationships. The fact that it is not the cry expected by Frost, but merely the sound of a lifeless machinery, expressed in the clock, re-enforces the narrator’s depression: the narrator truly now feels alone in the world.
Yet this stanza in itself is not complete, since it flows into the final two last lines of the poem, as the aforementioned clock
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
The transition here is ambiguous at first glance: the cry of the clock seems to have been expected or hoped by the narrator to have been the cry of a loved one to return. Now this misrecognition becomes something to the effect of a confirmation of the narrator’s decision for isolation and a retreat into his self: it is neither right nor wrong because the narrator himself now lives in a different almost dead space, according to which, perhaps in a crucial sense, the narrator now exists beyond normativities such as right and wrong. These are because such norms are part of the community of human relationships; the narrator, as exiled from these relationships, is no longer a part of these judgments. He rather is “acquainted with the night”, a space in which the despair of human relations overcomes their pertinence and their hold on an individual.
Frost’s narrator is a disappointed narrator, one who has become isolated from a human community. This appears to be the result of a failed relationship, which, in turn, induces the narrator reject human relations in their entirety. The reflection on this rejection dominates the narrator’s thoughts, his almost calm meditation on this new life the dominant motif of this poem.
Frost, Robert. “Acquainted with the Night.” Retrieved at: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/acquainted-with-the-night/ September 22, 2013.