Robert Frost’s ‘Acquainted with the Night’ is a lyric poem that expresses the solitude and loneliness of the speaker and also provides a self-revelation of one being alienated and not knowing where to belong by presenting a story where the speaker finds acquaintance in the night as he walks down the sad city streets. The melancholy imagery is the first thing that relates to the poem’s theme. The setting he walks in, the ‘saddest city lane’ (4), differs from Frost’s usual countryside setting, which corresponds to the feeling of him not belonging to this world. Through images of walking in and out of the rain, the furthest city lights, the night and the saddest city lane, readers identify with the speaker, a lonely person who has become acquainted with the night. Nothing can be more powerful in expressing loneliness than the image of a man walking alone in the rain, in the middle of a sad street; and him being in the rain is emphasized by replicating ‘in the rain’ in ‘[walking] out in the rain – and back in the rain’ (2).
The notion of distance is emphasized by words such as “walked”, “out walked”, “passed”, “stood still”, “ar away”, “further”… to express the sense of non-belonging, as he feels a distance from all these human objects. In addition, a collection of sight and sounds of the night is used to enhance the image, from the ‘interrupted cry’ (8) the speaker hears and the ‘luminary clock’ (12) he sees. The speaker speaks from the first person perceptive, and just by using a plain and recollecting tone, the speaker gives the impression of being an account of one’s walk in a solitary city night, giving an honest window for the reader to the speaker’s heart, which is full of desolation and depression.
Through the poem’s form and rhyme, the sight of a lonely man walking down sad streets in the night is portrayed, and the sense of heavy isolation and alienation is expressed. The poem uses an Italian sonnet called the Terza Rima (aba/bcb/cdc/dad/aa), a rhyme set that is difficult to develop, like the rhymes in the 3-lined stanzas interlock, giving a tight and intertwined perfect end rhyme. The rhyme prepares the comeback of the speaker’s title: ‘I have been one acquainted with the night.’ at the closing line by rhyming ‘night’ in this line with ‘right’ in the previous line. This emphasizes the ambiguity of the title, which adds depth to the desolation of the speaker, as now he is not only in solitude, but the ambiguity may suggest that solitude may be due to his own self-alienation, so ‘acquaintance’ in this case is self-irony.
In another way to express such solitude, the interlocking rhymes, meaning one different rhyme standing between two rhyming sentences (i.e. aba, vs aa, bb), seems to soften the rhymes and make them less prominent than in a pair of rhyming lines, giving the feeling of a lack of emotion and some stagnation. The rhythmic structure makes the poem feel slow and heavy, corresponding to the same feeling found in the rhymes. Using iambic pentameter, the poem also maintains a regular rhythm on each line without much variation. The more iambic meter is used than anapestic, especially abundant in the ‘I have’ sentences in the opening and closing, slowing down the rhythm and pace as the iambic meter is less quick and light as other meters.
The ‘I have’ sentences being end-stopped lines also give a halt to the pace at the end of each line, emphasizing the imagery of the speaker in the city night by giving separate situations he finds in the night, therefore enhancing the sense of solitude and alienation expressed by the imagery. After the end-stopped lines, gradually a two-line enjambment comes, then followed by a four-line enjambment, then decreased to a three-line enjambment. With enjambment, the sense is carried without syntactical pauses, such as in ‘I have […] on his beat / and dropped my eyes’ (5-6) which, in addition to variation from the iambic meter, quickens the rhythm of the poem in the middle portion, giving the reader the experience of variation and moving out of the frame of rhythm set in the beginning and ending end-stop lines.
With the speaker ‘[standing] still and [stopping] the sound of feet’ (7), sibilance with alliteration on the ‘s’ sound enhances the effect of the pace slowed to silence. Next, the meter is extended, and the line lengthened to 10 words, dragging the pace to stagnation so much that the speaker could notice his footsteps stopping. This builds up for the sudden cry that changes the pace. ‘When far away an interrupted cry’ (8) is heard, the reader is brought out of the silence of the night quickly. As the reader suddenly thinks the cry is for the speaker, the climax halts as the speaker understand the sad truth that the call was not intended for him, further amplifying the speaker’s desolation and sad alienation from the world, one in where even the slightest hope from a cry afar becomes disappointing as it is eventually found to be indifferent to the speaker.
At first glance, the repetitive use of “I have” at the poem’s beginning is most striking to the eye. In contrast, the simple sentence structure, which gives the illusion of the poem to be artless and overly simplistic at first sight, is accompanied by the difficult Terza Rima rhyme scheme and a novel, sophisticated and rigid pattern in form. A formal pattern from the ‘I have’ sentences is formed from a rigid, somewhat mathematical pattern – 3 ‘I have’ sentences in the first stanza, 2 in the second stanza, 1 in the third stanza and none in the fourth. These simple sentences are composed by repetitively using ‘I have’ and a verb to display what the speaker had done in his walk in the city night, such as ‘I have looked down the saddest city lane’ (4). Looking at ‘I’ shows a personal 1st person experience of the loneliness of the night, which indicates singularity and sense of solitude, and the separation from the rest of the world.
But when we look at ‘I have’, this implies that something had happened, symbolized by such imagery of the rain and the city, where the speaker has been alienated before, which results in his current sense of non-belonging. The night images in these sentences are meticulously drawn by the use of unstressed and stressed syllables, and including the repetitive use of ‘I have’, these lines linger for attention. Our depressed speaker finds that none of the signs of human contact exists to acknowledge him, such as when the interrupted cry, which he later found was ‘not to call [him] back or say goodbye’ (18). But do all these signs deny the writer, or is he indifferent to them? When the writer drops his eyes to avoid contact with the watchman (6), he cannot explain why, though it is clear that he is alienating himself from human contact or that which symbolizes the acceptance of society. This can also be seen from the title itself, where the speaker is ironically ‘acquainted’ with the night. (The 3rd line has the word ‘walked out’ reversed to become ‘outwalked’, providing interesting wordplay that provides an undercut to the seriousness of the poem, like the irony of the title.)
If he does not feel comfortable with the night and uncomfortable with society and other men, why else would he want to be acquainted with the night? The writer believes that he is not accepted; thus, he avoids contact; but that is justified, as it is true that none of the cries from society is out to reach him. In the end, the speaker sees a luminary clock in the sky, which is spatially disoriented and exaggerated to an’ unearthly height’ (11), further matching his mental state of disorientation. Probably this ‘clock’ is probably just the moon to the reader, but in this case, the speaker sees it as a clock that symbolizes human objects, but he is indifferent to what the clock tells. The clock conveys a strong message that the speaker has eventually lost himself through acquainting with the night, becoming mentally disoriented and strongly indifferent to all human things, even time. This poem not only conveys the mood of a sense of loneliness, self-alienation and desertion, it also shows how such alienation can come from such a relationship between man and the society, the place where we usually find acquaintance – what other reason would one actually prefer the acquaintance of the night?