Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” is constructed using a terza rima form. Consisting of fourteen lyrical lines written in iambic pentameter, terza rima is a verse form composed of three-line stanzas (or tercets) with interlocking rhymes. The second line of each tercet establishes the rhyme for the following tercet. This supplies the poem with a common thread, a way to link the stanzas.
The rhyme scheme for this poem is: aba, bcb, cdc, dad, aa, which is a slightly variation from the traditional terza rima rhyme scheme of aba, bcb, cdc, ded, ee. The variation helps to emphasize Frost’s intention to create a circular structure for the poem. And by repeating the first line “I have been one acquainted with the night” at the end of the poem, and rhyming “night” and “light” in the first stanza to “right” and “night” in the last couplet, Frost further creates a sense of continuation, a walking and searching sensation that moves through the poem and return the speaker and the reader to the beginning of the journey.
The terza rima is also found in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Similar to Dante’s journey through the three realms of the dead, the speaker in this poem is also taking a journey. The journey motif invites the reader to examine the three stages of conflict that the speaker experiences as he makes his way through the wasteland of the modern era. Stage one takes the speaker through the cityscape; its unfamiliar setting represents the speaker’s sense of alienation, a product of his physical and spiritual distance from the life he once knew. Stage two takes place in the speaker’s awareness of the lonely walk he is taking, which represents his isolation from his fellow man. And stage three is the speaker’s journey through the night. The speaker’s acquaintance with the night symbolizes a poet in crisis, reacting to the changes to his craft brought about by Modernism.
From the first stanza the theme of alienation is strongly evident:
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 setting of a cityscape is unusual for Frost since most of his poems are set in the rural, pastoral landscape of New England. This suggests an unfamiliar, out of place feeling, which the speaker is experiencing from having found himself in a place he does not know or understand; and although he has an acquaintance with the city lights and city lanes, the city is not home. To add to the feeling of estrangement and alienation, the speaker, having had “outwalked the furthest city light,” is finding himself even further on the outside. He has gone beyond the safety of the city limits, which echoes Dante’s journey. The speaker has wandered off the “path” and gone astray. But then having “walked out in rain,” he finds himself walking “back [again] in rain,” going through an exhausting act of trying to leave something behind, only having to return to it without having found any answers.
The second stanza begins with “I have looked down the saddest city lane.” The speaker looks down this lane but does not take it. Is it an act of giving up? Or is the speaker hesitant to discover or know his new surrounding?
The word lane can also be likened to a country lane, but instead, this is an unknown lane in an unfamiliar landscape where even the lanes are defamiliarized and sad.
The speaker’s only connection to nature in this place of estrangement is the moon. She is his only companion; however, she is out of reach at “an unearthly height.” She, too, alienates him in her own way.
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky
Though the moon is the only positive image in the poem, she neither guides nor judges. The moon, the keeper of time, “proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right,” suggesting that time simply flows; it is indifferent to the speaker’s journey.
The alienation of the cityscape creates a profound sense of isolation, which is represented not just in the images but also in the construction of the lines. Every sentence in this poem begins with “I.” There are seven lines and seven “I”s. “I have been one acquainted with the night…I have passed by the watchman on his beat…I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet, etc….” Inside the setting of a vast modern world troubled by changes, the “I” draws attention to the singular entity, the solitary existence of man.
The only person the speaker encounters on his walk is in the fifth line, “the watchman on his beat.”
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
The speaker and the watchman do not make eye-contact. The dropping of the eyes can be interpreted as shame, but I think in this case, it is about the speaker’s unwillingness to reveal his true self to the watchman. The watchman’s vocation is one of loneliness and isolation. He walks his beat alone. He knows the city and the night; this is knowledge that the speaker does not have. The isolation felt by both men is briefly interrupted by their chance meeting, however, neither can escape his own loneliness, and so they pass without connecting. This is also a commentary on the nature of modern city people who are so accustomed to solitude that they can no longer connect with one another.
By the third stanza, the speaker is alone again, so alone, in fact, that when he stops walking, there are no other footsteps to be heard. It is interesting that this is the only part of the poem where enjambment is used. Though the speaker has stopped, the lines are hurrying forward, creating a feeling of uneasiness and urgency.
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;
The speaker’s loneliness is further amplified by the “interrupted cry,” which comes “from another street.” It isn’t intended for him. It isn’t there to call him “back or say good-bye.” The speaker continues his journey, realizing that no one is missing him or wishing for his return. Though the city is populated with lives, none of those lifelines are connected to him.
On a philosophical level, I believe this poem is also an allegory for the poet’s struggles with his craft. As a poet, Frost is claiming to be “acquainted with the night,” which are the forms and subjects of his poems, but he does not possess true knowledge of them. The walk represents Frost’s exploration and experimentations in response to the changes taking place in Modernism.
In having “outwalked the furthest city light,” Frost strays from the “path” of traditions. “The watchman” represents a traditional poet whom he admires, and meeting this poet along the way, he is ashamed of the choices he has made and cannot meet this poet’s eyes. He is unable and “unwilling to explain” his need to explore new horizons. The “interrupted cry” from the distant is the collective voice of his contemporaries who have embraced new subjects and forms. He hears it, but realizes that the cry is not intended for him.
“I have walked out in rain” can also be interpreted as the poet’s admittance to having succumbed to experimentations, but he comes “back in rain” and decides to return to poetic tradition. And by starting and ending the poem with “I have been one acquainted with the night,” it can be concluded that Frost has come full circle. Yes, he was once “acquainted with the night,” but that is now in the past.
Though he knows that making a return to traditional verse would alienate him from the modernist landscape of free verse poetry and isolate him from his contemporaries, when Frost finds himself looking “down the saddest lane” of modern poetry, he does not take it. “The moon” acts as the poet’s inner voice, reminding him to come back to what he knows. Realizing that “the time was neither wrong nor right” for change, he stays true to the sound of his own voice rather than allowing himself to be swayed by the currents of time and culture. This decision eventually leads him back to the beginning, back to traditions. As the result, the construction of this poem in traditional verse with its rigid and difficult rhyme scheme is Frost taking a stance in favor of tradition amidst the changes of Modernism.