Robert Frost's "Acquainted with the Night"
Many of Robert Frost's works have been interpreted as autobiographical, incorporating his love for the natural world in the thoughts and feelings of the speakers of his poetry. The genius of his work however lies in the broad meaning of his words so that they apply to everyone. In his poem "Acquainted with the Night", Frost uses symbolism and rhythm skims to convey through the speaker what many feel are lonesome feelings of isolation from some awful deeds which the speaker feels ashamed of. Others may view the poem as being full of optimistic, life proclaiming symbolism that reflects the speaker's pride in choosing the road less traveled. His style and use of symbolic ideas allows for his work to be interpreted in various ways, and every reader can find their own meaning to his words.
Robert Lee Frost was born on the 26th of March 1874, in San Francisco. Both of his parents were teachers which provided an early environment heavy in exposure to classical and popular works of literature such as those by William Shakespeare and poets Robert Burns and William Wordsworth. He also developed a love of nature and the rural countryside which stayed with him throughout his life, as evident by the heavy dose of nature in his poetry.
Frost experienced many losses in his life including his father in 1885, his mother in 1900, his sister in 1929, and four of his six children, two of which died at very early ages. Of course everyone experiences losses in their lives, but one can imagine the profound effect the death of a child would have on one's disposition. The often gloomy and even depressing tones of many of his poems can be seen as a projection of his own depression and feelings of loss (Merriman).
Most people read "Acquainted with the Night" as dealing with the ideas of loneliness, depression, sufferings, and even contemplation of suicide. Everyone can relate to the feelings of isolation as most go through a period of such feelings themselves, if to varying degrees.
The first line of the poem tells the reader that night is a metaphor with profound symbolic meaning. If taken literally, the first line is meaningless. Everyone is familiar with what night is, so there must be a deeper meaning behind the words. In most poems night is a symbol for death, which it very well could symbolize in this poem, but another metaphorical meaning to night is the speaker's depression that he is most likely ashamed of. The speakers apparent shame can be seen in the lines, "I have passed by the watchman on his beat / And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain" (5-6). This idea of depression is seen in several lines of the poem, "I have looked down the saddest city lane" (4) can be seen to refer to a time when the speaker's depression was particularly strong. "I have outwalked the furthest city light" (3) also shows the speakers depression, light often being symbolic for hope, meaning that the speaker has gone beyond hope in his depression.
In the third stanza the speaker hears a "far away an interrupted cry" (8). The physical distance can be seen as a metaphor for the speaker's emotional distance. The speaker may have been rejected or rejected someone in the past; either way the cry was "not to call me back or say good-bye" (10) again adding to the feeling of depression and loneliness. When the speaker looks up, he sees "at an unearthly height, / One luminary clock against the sky" (11-12) further showing the speaker's distance. Other words in the poem, such as "outwalked", "passed", "stood still", and "further still" also add to the idea that the speaker is emotionally distant.
The pattern of the poem itself can be seen as a symbolic representation of the cycle of depression. The repetition of the initial rhyme draws the reader back to the beginning, in much the same way one that suffers from depression seems to get stuck in a loop of emotion (Miller 134).
The poem could also be about the speaker's guilt for something he is ashamed of doing, such as having an affair. Again, the line where the speaker drops his eyes to the night watchman is telling that he is ashamed of something. In this interpretation acquaintance with the night could mean a familiarity to something viewed as immoral such as adultery. When the speaker says he has "outwalked the furthest city light" (3) he could be referring to his going away from the light of morality.
When the speaker hears the far away cry one could say that the cry came from someone whom he has left, either his mistress or more likely a prostitute, since the person who calls to him doesn't seem too concerned about him. And although the speaker obviously feels guilty, he is relatively indifferent and will most likely do what he feels guilty for again. This is affirmed by the repetition of the opening line as the last line of the poem.
With the omission of gender specific language in the poem one can view the speaker as being female. Taken this way the "luminary clock" (12), or the moon, becomes more meaningful. For this interpretation the night becomes symbolic for a woman's fear of isolation from society if she is unable to have children. The image of the moon is a metaphor for the woman's hope to become pregnant, and the phrase "I have been one acquainted with the night" (1) means that she has tried before to become pregnant and failed. Rain is sometimes used to symbolize pregnancy, and the phrase "I have walked out in rain and back in rain" (2) would imply that she has been pregnant in the past but had a miscarriage, and the "saddest city lane" (4) could be a time where she had a miscarriage or possibly the loss of a child at birth, as Frost's wife experienced (Merriman).
The speaker dropping her eyes to the watchman could mean that she feels the inability for her to have a child is her fault. The emotional distance interpretation also works with this idea, so that she is seen as withdrawing and falling into isolation.
The positive interpretation of this poem includes embracing differences and the beauty and power of being a poet. The structure of the poem itself lends to the interpretation that this poem is about being a poet. It is written in a terza rima sonnet, using four tercets of an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme. This trinity style with the inclusion of the elements of night, rain, and light suggest that the speaker is a God-like creator, in much the same way a poet creates. The poem's slight divergence from stylistic norms, such as its premature thematic break at the end of the first two tercets instead of the typical break after three quatrains and before the concluding couplet, further express the idea of experimentation (Amano 40-41).
This interpretation that the persona in the poem is a poet can also be seen by applying the symbolism discussed earlier in a creative context. Night can be seen as referring to new forms of poetry, and the speakers going away from the city seen as his exploration into new styles of poetry, the city being the traditional style. The speaker also states that he has walked back, which would mean that he has experimented in the past, but he always returns to traditional poetry (Amano 40).
The watchman is the poet's conscience which guides him to stay on the traditional paths. The speaker's unwillingness to meet his eyes suggests he does not want to explain his need for experimentation. The cry that the speaker hears that is not to say good bye, or to call him back allows him to realize that no one, not even the watchman, can prevent him from pursuing new creative ideas in poetry (Amano 41).
In all honesty, the multitude of interpretations that one can infer from this seemingly simple poem could be the sole subject of an entire book. Powerful poems such as these use words that have multiple meanings depending on the context, this allows for infinite depth and a profound ability to relate to the reader in any point of life, and in any situation. I would invite anyone to read poems such as these and interpret their own meanings from the symbolism to apply to their own life. True appreciation of poetry comes from applying it to your own experiences to help understand what makes you who you are.
Amano, Kyoko. "Frost's 'Acquainted with the Night'" Explicator, 2006 Fall; 65 (1): 39-42.
Frost, Robert. "Acquainted with the Night." Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. 6th Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. 1177.
Merriman, C.D. "Biography of Robert Frost" Jalic Inc. n.d. 2006.
Miller, P. "Interrupting the depression cycle." Geriatric Nursing (New York, N.Y.)
1980 Jul-Aug; Vol. 1 (2), pp. 133-5.