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Robert Frost's "Acquainted with the Night"

Robert Frost remains America's most noted and beloved poet. His classic works are widely anthologized and studied in the nation's schools.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Introduction and Text of "Acquainted with the Night"

Robert Frost's "Acquainted with the Night" is an American, or Innovative, sonnet. Frost's American sonnet features four tercets in terza rima, a form made famous by Dante, and a Shakespearean couplet. The speaker in Robert Frost's American sonnet reveals his rebellious nature, proclaiming his individual prerogative to venture into the city at night.

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.

Frost reading "Acquaianted with the Night"

Commentary

The speaker in the poem reveals a lesson he learned in appropriateness and time: only human beings associate appropriateness with time.

First Tercet: He Knows Nighttime

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 speaker claims that he has "been one acquainted with the night." He and night are not friends but merely acquaintances. After reporting that he knows something about night time in the city, he gives some examples. The speaker is acquainted with the night because he has taken many walks down city streets, even in rain—he has "walked out in rain — and back in rain." He has walked so far that he has "outwalked the furthest city light." The speaker, of course, means "farthest" here, and there is no other reason to account for his use of "furthest" but that he made an error.

Second Tercet: Night Observations

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

The speaker continues his list of night observations to support his claim that he has, in fact, been acquainted with the night. On one such walk, he has "looked down the saddest city lane." This observation demonstrates that he has not merely walked in pleasant areas like the town square or to the movies, but he has even ventured to where there is poverty and maybe even squalor. The speaker has even been out so late that he has encountered security guards, and on the occasion of meeting one of these "watchm[en]," he has "dropped [his] eyes, unwilling to explain."

The speaker did not feel obliged to explain to some watchman why he was out walking so late at night. Of course, the guard might have stopped him and asked him to explain anyway, even though he dropped his eyes, but apparently he was lucky enough to escape without being accosted. On the other hand, by even mentioning his unwillingness to explain, the speaker reveals a level of guilt that he is reluctant to explore or acknowledge.

Third Tercet: Listening

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

On occasion during one of these late night city walking tours, he has suddenly caught the sound of some "interrupted cry" that carried from "over houses from another street." Thus, he stopped to listen.

Fourth Tercet: Imaginary Calling

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

But as the speaker listened to that "interrupted cry," he realized that it was not someone calling him. At first upon hearing the cry, the speaker seemed to think that someone was either calling for him to return or just to tell him good-bye, but he realizes that no one is calling him so he continues. At this point, the speaker notices a clock face in a clock tower which is "further still at an unearthly height." Again, he means "farther" because the clock appears at a great distance from him. It is not only far, but so high that it seems not of the earth.

Some readers have interpreted the "luminary clock against the sky" to be the moon, but Frost revealed that it was a clock tower in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Frost: Centennial Essays, 1974). While the moon interpretation is not impossible, it makes little sense to think of the moon as a clock. The moon does not reveal time in terms of hours, for example, as the sun does.

Couplet: Consternation and Timidity

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

The speaker then asserts that the clock "proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right." He has demonstrated some consternation about his night walks through the city. His timid reaction to the watchman reveals that he felt he probably should not be out so late at night, but then upon seeing the clock, he reinterprets time, realizing that time is neutral, and only the human associates appropriateness with time.

The speaker then repeats his claim, "I have been one acquainted with the night"—this time he is asserting his right to be out walking and observing night life. The speaker is quite proud to state that he knows night time in the city, if only as an acquaintance, not a friend.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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