19 pages 38 minutes read

Robert Frost

Acquainted with the Night

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1928

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Like an intentionally deceptive trompe l’oeil (“deceives the eye”) painting that looks like a rabbit or a duck depending on the viewpoint, Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” (1928) can be a tricky read. Frost’s lyric is a dark lament of a speaker who confesses his obsession with sorrow and despair during a late-night walk in the rain. But that melancholy changes significantly if the poem is read ironically.

When reading the poem with irony, the speaker is flippant and snarky and dismisses the idea that being alone is somehow the same as existential loneliness. The speaker likes being alone and feels even in the saddest and loneliest walks no obligation to explain that quirky sort of satisfaction to others. Company, this older speaker suggests, is highly overrated.

That these two contrary readings can exist simultaneously makes this poem, one of Frost’s most familiar and most anthologized lyrics, less about despair and hopelessness and more about how to manage, even triumph over such inevitable human emotions.

Poet Biography

Much in Frost’s biography would suggest the depression and despair that the speaker experiences could easily be grounded in Frost’s own life. His father was a promising journalist whose career and life were cut short by an addiction to alcohol (he died when Frost was 10); his mother had bipolar disorder, which affected her care for the family due to long bouts of near-comatose emotional paralysis. Frost early on was a voracious reader, finding in the tidy crafting of prosody the kind of symmetry and clarity that his own life lacked. Formal education never much intrigued him. He briefly attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and then spent a semester at Harvard but never completed a degree. Although never not working on his verse, he worked odd jobs—shoe repair for a stint, then a carpenter, a part-time journalist for regional newspapers, and, most disastrously, a farmer on the spread his grandfather gave him when he married. Frost failed at all of them. By 1912, Frost, approaching 40 and desperate to find a publisher for his poems, relocated to the picturesque cottage town of Dymock, England, about two hours west of London with its thriving arts community.

Frost found a home among these mavericks, who called themselves the Modernists, and published two well-received volumes of poetry. When Frost returned to the United States in 1915, his work was recognized for its lyrical elegance, its stately prosody, and its unblinking analysis of the complex dynamic between humanity and an indifferent nature in this new century. By the publication of West-Running Brook (1928), which contained “Acquainted with the Night,” Frost had already won the first of what would be four Pulitzer Prizes.

Over the next 20 years, Frost became America’s most recognized poet. Rare for poets in any era, his collections topped bestseller lists. Frost accepted writer-in-resident appointments at universities, where he delighted in confusing earnest students intent on understanding their way into his poems. He gave public readings that became entertainment sensations. With his wrinkled face, his mischievous smile, and his perpetually tousled mop of bone-white hair, Frost became something of a celebrity profiled in cover stories for both Time and Life. His no-nonsense, often snarky interview style opened an entirely new audience for him with the advent of television.

His verse, carefully metered and often strictly rhymed (free verse, he sniffed, was a triumph of ego over discipline), was at once comfortably conversational and yet philosophically unsettling. Invited by President John F. Kennedy, who admired Frost’s work, to deliver an original poem at Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, Frost, then 86, struggled to read his own typed lines against the hard glare of the noon sun. Without drama, Frost calmly recited from memory “The Gift Outright,” a poem he had composed nearly 50 years earlier. Although skeptical biographers have suggested Frost slyly staged the whole thing for dramatic effect on live television, the bravura performance fixed Frost’s place as America’s national poet.

Frost was in Boston working on a new volume of poetry when his heart gave out in January 1963. Kennedy declared a national day of mourning, the first such occasion ever given to a poet. Frost was buried in a tiny church yard of the Old First Church in Bennington, Vermont. His epitaph quotes his poem “The Lesson for Today”: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world” (Line 4).

Poem Text

Frost, Robert. “Acquainted with the Night.” 1928. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

Without disclosing exactly where he is now or under what conditions he is drafting the poem, the speaker opens by admitting he has known the “night” (Lines 1, 14), the word freighted with suggestions of emotional darkness, quiet sorrows, and private agonies. The poem suggests this walking at night is something of a habit, that the speaker has come to know the emotions of such a walk, the complicated reward of experiencing melancholy, exploring without giving in to sadness. That, the speaker acknowledges with a knowing wink, is exactly what a rainy night is for. The speaker shares that he has on occasion walked quietly along empty city streets (“the saddest city lane” [Line 4]) on dreary, rainy nights, that dismal environment making his sadness that much more intense, giving it a special keenness.

He confesses on such nights he would walk until he reached the “furthest city light” (Line 3). He delights in running out of the city. There on the darkness at the edge of town, he stands apart, alone. He “outwalked” (Line 3) the city, as if it were a competition. He is not terrified or devastated by despair but by momentary triumph, walking beyond the cloying reach of streetlamps, traffic, and pedestrians.

He jealously protects his isolation. He recalls being passed by a “watchman” (Line 5), most likely a street cop walking his beat. But the speaker admits he made no eye contact, did not go out of his way to break through the isolation of his night walk, electing to stay apart, content to dwell in his night-world revery. “[He] dropped [his] eyes, unwilling to explain” (Line 6), that is, unwilling, uninterested in explaining why he is out alone on a rainy night, dismissing such conversations as irrelevant distractions. Chatting would only break the spell of the night, the quiet, the cloaking dark, the insulating rain. My night thoughts, the speaker admits, only belong to me.

Then, he recalls that on those occasions when he seeks the murky night-world and indulges a long walk apart from everything, he might hear an “interrupted cry” (Line 8), a fragment of a sound, perhaps laughter, perhaps loud conversation, perhaps someone calling someone home. The speaker does not care sufficiently to define the voice he hears. Whatever the noise, the poet knows, it is not intended for him. It is “not to call me back or say goodbye” (Line 10) and hence carries no need for him to respond. He can maintain his apartness, immerse himself in his night thoughts. Is it wrong to relish such contemplations, to allow the spell of the night, the rain, the quiet to encourage him to thought? Nothing disturbs his night walk, not even the reality of time passing suggested by a bold clocktower far above his head with its great illuminated clockface that stands against the night sky. The poem ends with the speaker understanding it is time to return; the walk is over. Yes, the poet concludes, I have been one acquainted with the night, acquainted but hardly devasted; the night is a place I visit not a place where I stay.

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