Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Darkness and Light
It may seem obvious that a poem called "Acquainted with the Night" has a lot to do with darkness, but it's also about light, even if it's about the lack of light. There's more to the dark and light of this poem than meets the eye, though. This poem can be read as a metaphor for the dark of depression and loneliness. Yet, the light of the moon still reaches beyond the lights of the city and humanity, a symbol of hope.
- Line 1: This line establishes the setting of the poem, which is the night. In this poem, night is an extended metaphor for depression: the narrator has been acquainted with depression, not just literal night. Each episode in the poem, then, can be read as an individual metaphor for depression.
- Line 3: When Frost outwalks the city lights, it's another metaphor for depression. Yet this line takes it farther: not only is the speaker depressed, when he gets far enough into his depression, there is no light, or happiness, in his life, at least not from cities and civilization.
- Line 12: The phrase "luminary clock" is a metaphor comparing the moon to a clock. This moon is the brightest image in the poem; its light reaches our speaker even when he's gone past city lights. The depth of the moon's light is a symbol for how the natural world prevails over civilization.
- Line 13: The moon may give our speaker light, but it doesn't cure his depression. The speaker uses personification, saying that the moon "proclaims" that the time is "neither wrong nor right," leaving the speaker unsatisfied.
- Line 14: By repetition, the final line turns "I have been one acquainted with the night" into a refrain.
This is a bleak and lonely poem. Everything seems distant, and the speaker is acquainted, but not friends with, the night. The poem is set in a city, but the only other human we see is an ominous watchman, whom the speaker avoids, and the only humans we hear are the speaker, who stops his own footsteps, and the sound of a far away cry. The speaker hopes that someone is calling for him, but no one is. The images of the poem seem distant and detached.
- Lines 1 and 14: The word "acquainted" is a lonely word. We are acquainted with someone if we've briefly met them, but wouldn't call them our friend (or our enemy). So, in this poem, the speaker knows the night, and although he has a lot of experience with it, he is not its intimate friend. The use of the word "acquainted" could also be an understatement – maybe the speaker actually is more intimate with the night and its sorrows than he would like to admit.
- Line 3: The speaker is in a city, but he's gone past the lights, and he's alone, on the outskirts of a place where many people live. This physical distance is a metaphor for his loneliness.
- Lines 5 and 6: Here we see the watchman, but he's not a very comforting person to run into on a lonely night. Actually, as we find out when the speaker avoids him in line 6, he's a little scary.
- Lines 8-10: This voice is one of the creepiest parts of the poem. Before these lines, the poem deals mostly with the speaker's surroundings, but line 10 shows his thoughts, reflecting that the cry is not for him. This line doesn't explicitly express emotion, but the speaker took the effort to stop and listen to this cry, and seems sad that it's not calling for him.
- Lines 11-12: The image of the moon at its unearthly distance is sad and lonely, like the speaker.
From the city lights, to the cry, to the moon, a lot of the imagery in this poem is far away and distant. This physical distance creates a metaphor for the speaker's psychological distance. So, in addition to being lonely, the speaker feels like he is disconnected and far away. This can't be very helpful for his loneliness or depression.
- Line 3: This line introduces the metaphor of distance in the poem – the speaker has passed the furthest city light. Note that, by walking, the speaker has created this distance himself.
- Lines 8-9: The cry comes from far away, continuing the distance metaphor. Even though we are in a city, which is much more condensed than the countryside, this human noise is distant and distorted. The city even creates this distance and distortion – the cry is interrupted because it comes over houses.
- Line 11: The moon is the most distant image in this poem. It is at an "unearthly height." Perhaps, the speaker feels so distant from other humans that he himself feels a little unearthly.
For most of the poem, the narrator is walking, which becomes a metaphor for persistence, as grudging as it may be. This walk is not a brisk, happy walk through the countryside, but a lonely walk through the night. It seems a little illicit, and nothing is quite right, but nonetheless, the narrator keeps going, walking out and back, walking through the night. Even though he is unhappy, he keeps on keeping on.
- Line 2: This line establishes that the narrator is walking. It uses repetition to make the walking seem long and weary: he trudges out through the rain, then back again.
- Line 3: Here, not only do we see that the narrator is walking, but appropriate to the loneliness and distance of the poem, he's outwalked the city lights. This line could imply that, through walking, the speaker is distancing himself.
- Line 5: The movement continues in this line. Though the speaker "passed by," not "walked by," again we see that he is moving past all hopes of human contact.
- Line 7: In this line, the narrator stops walking and stands still, an eerie discontinuation of the poem's movement. Yet this line, both through meaning and through the alliteration of "st" sounds, adds an important element to the idea of walking in the poem – the sound of feet. If you listen carefully, the iambic pentameter of the poem sounds like footsteps.