Robert Frost's "Acquainted with the Night" is not a traditional sonnet. Although it has the traditional fourteen lines and tightly rhymed stanzas associated with both Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, Frost's rhyme scheme here is unusual: he uses the interlinking rhymes structured around successive tercets that is known as terza rima, whose greatest proponent was probably Dante in The Divine Comedy. But Frost takes the radical solitude of Dante, who bereft of Beatrice is then led by the ghost of Virgil into a sort of dream-vision of eternity, and offers no otherworldly way out. It is my hope to show that Frost pursues a strategy in "Acquainted with the Night" of using the mundane and realistic details suitable for a poem about observed life, and to make them feel less familiar -- through the formality of the verse -- until it seems that Frost has transfigured the world he walks through, making it seem like an allegorical hellscape, or a perfect exterior symbol of the poet's interior state in the poem. I would like to examine "Acquainted with the Night," taking each stanza individually to show how Frost's literary art manages to construct a universal-seeming situation out of naturalistic description.
Deirdre Fagan notes that Frost's narrator in "Acquainted with the Night" is "uncharacteristically urban" (Fagan 22), although the first stanza of the poem insists on evoking that urban landscape purely to leave it behind in wandering: "I have outwalked the furthest city light" (Frost 255, l. 3) Yet the first line gives a clue to Frost's larger purposes here: although I will have occasion to return to this first line in later discussion, for now it is sufficient to look at the poem's opening line and examine it carefully: "I have been one acquainted with the night" (Frost 255, l. 1). What is the word "one" doing in the middle of this sentence? It loses no grammatical meaning for Frost to omit it, and say "I have been acquainted." Even the damage done to the iambic pentameter could be repaired with the choice of another word -- "I have been well acquainted" or "I have been long acquainted." The introduction of the word "one" instead lays emphasis on the solitary nature of the poem's speaker, and also introduces an almost archaic note to the grammar here. In ordinary speech, this kind of verbal construction would seem pretentious, but here it lends a kind of slow gravity to the poem's opening, especially as the biggest word in the line, "acquainted," manages to chime with the double use of "rain" in the following line. (This lands with an additional emphasis on the ear because "rain" of course is the last word of line 2, and will therefore -- according to the terza rima scheme -- be picked up twice again in the next stanza.
The first stanza also asserts its unworldly quality -- as though the "city" (l. 3) that the poem is "outwalking" is itself merely a physical reality that can be transcended, by the use of almost-Biblical anaphora: "I have been one" (l. 1), "I have walked" (l. 2), "I have outwalked" (l. 3). As though to blur the break between stanzas, this anaphora continues in the second stanza -- "I have looked" (l. 4), "I have passed" (l.5) -- and has a final structural position at the opening of the third stanza: "I have stood still" (l. 7). This pattern begins, of course, with the first line of the poem -- and I will discuss its larger implications for the ending when I return to discussion of that first line, which will be repeated at the end of the poem and offer a formal closure to the sonnet. For now it is enough to note that the anaphora is used as a structural principle here, and it brings in a somnolent or dreamy quality to the poet's narration here. The events described here could just as easily be a sort of dream-vision of the sort Dante invented terza rima to narrate: although it may seem strange to compare one of the great epic poems to Frost's considerably humbler sonnet, Richard Poirier argues (agreeing with both Jarrell and Brower, who had earlier discussed the indebtedness) that "Acquainted with the Night" is a poem that "links Frost with Dante" (Poirier 241). It is curious that, as Frost's terza rima continues, the landscape seems to take on the allegorical quality of a Dantesque vision. Although the midnight strolls of the first stanza indicate darkness and solitude, chiming as the poet "walked" there and back in rain, but then "outwalked" the "furthest city light" -- only to reveal, by the second stanza, that the "saddest city lane" is still visible to him. Fagan usefully points out the ambiguity in this last phrase: "the question is whether the sadness is inherent in the lane or is the perception of the speaker" (Fagan 22). It would seem to me that the two are indistinguishable -- one of the things that makes the poem seem like a narration of a dream (or nightmare) is the perfect congruence between the poet's inner state and the visible world described in the poem. In part, this is caused by the inability of the poet to connect with the other figures in the landscape he describes: although he does encounter at least one identifiable person (the "watchman on his beat," l. 5) the poet "dropped his eyes, unwilling to explain." (Fagan thinks there's an ambiguity here in the missed connection with the watchman, and suggests that "night for Frost represents the innermost loneliness, a loneliness that keeps him isolated from those who cry out, but not for him, and from the watchman, who may or may not be aware of his presence" [Fagan 22].) But the next two stanzas will present other calls from the human population which prompt the poet to "[stop] the sound of feet / when…an interrupted cry / Came over houses from another street" -- the possible sound of distress causes an instinctive reaction even in this solitary wanderer to stop.
Yet the disjunction between stanzas here also marks a real emotional disjunction in the poem: Frost's narrator has stopped instinctively at the sound of the cry, and pauses to hear where it comes from, but realizes that it is not for him: the call came "not to call me back or say good-bye" (l. 10), which indicates that the kind of cosmic indifference that the natural world has towards human activity is here transferred even onto the man-made world of an urban cityscape. Frost's narrator is lost -- although he is not lost in the woods, like Dante in the opening lines of The Divine Comedy or even the narrator of Frost's much-anthologized "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening," with no human contact around. He is lost in the midst of this human contact as though he were surrounded by mute trees, despite the physical and audible presence of these urban residents. For Poirier this seems to be the central insight of the poem: after noting that "…getting lost…was never an agreeable prospect for [Frost]"; Poirier examines other of Frost's "terrifying poems about wandering off, losing the self, or belonging nowhere. That is the plight of the men in the poems we have been considering and of the man in 'Acquainted with the Night'…" (Poirier 147). But the description of human behavior which cannot touch the poet then reveals itself in an almost transcendentally tall ("at an unearthly height," l. 11) street-clock. Frost presents it as "one luminary clock against the sky" -- the word "one," repeated from the first line, with the accurate but unexpected word "luminary," seems to make the clock a kind of mirror-image of the poet himself, or of his solitude. It seems that, even when one feels -- as the narrator here does -- utterly disconnected from human activity, one can escape cities and people but can never escape time itself.
The poem then concludes, as stanzas do, with a couplet that provides a formal ending. But here the formality of the ending is doubled by Frost's use of the ultimate in anaphoretic repetition: the first line of the poem is repeated as the last. Most sonnets have a concluding couplet that in some way poses a complete thought. Frost's does, but in a way that is as disjunctive as other rhetorical devices he uses here. If the penultimate stanza builds up the clock as a kind of mirror-antagonist of the narrator himself, the clock's message for the poet waits to spill over into the final couplet:
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night. (Frost 255, ll. 13-4)
This is, of course, a metaphorical reading of what a clock says. To say that the time is "neither wrong nor right" suggests a kind of cosmic indifference on the part of time to the doings of…