Depression hides in the dark. It lies in the shadows of our brain, a midnight that drowns those whom are afflicted with feelings of inescapability and hopelessness. In Robert Frost’s poem, “Acquainted with the Night,” depression’s true nature is made apparent to the reader. The poem centers around our speaker, a lonely wanderer recounting times he has walked through the city in the dead of night. Our wanderer is solemn, detached, and lost; depression has found its grip on him. While “Acquainted with the Night” paints the picture of a man in the midst of depression, Emily Dickinson’s poem, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” provides a contrasting perspective. It is centered around a speaker who has struggled with depression in the past, and is now reflecting upon her experience. The speaker finds herself in the darkness, but as her eyes adjust, the light hidden around her becomes more apparent. These two poems illustrate a clear picture of the cyclical nature of depression; however, while Frost leaves the reader with a feeling of hopelessness, Dickinson reveals there is light even in the darkest of circumstances, showing that at the end of the night, we may step almost straight.
“Acquainted with the Night” drops the reader in the midst of the city, following the Lonely Wanderer as he walks alone through the darkness. Immediately Frost sets the tone of the piece, asserting that the Wanderer is “acquainted with the night” (ln. 1). Our Wanderer’s familiarity with the night is relatable from a metaphorical standpoint. He is someone who has struggled with depression for a great deal of time, someone who knows the struggles and detriments that come with mental illness. The lonely Wanderer is consumed with depression; the night he has found himself in has become his reality. Mentally, the Wanderer is plunged in darkness. He recounts times he has “passed by the watchman on his beat / and dropped [his] eyes, unwilling to explain” (lns. 5-6). Personal connection of any sort is out of the question for him. As he walks through the night the Wanderer confines himself to solitude, avoiding social interaction as much as he can. He doesn’t want to explain why he walks at night; he is ashamed of his reasoning and cannot even bring himself to look a stranger in the eye, much less talk to anyone about his situation. Furthermore, the watchman is supposed to observe the city and the people residing within it, but the Wanderer feels as though he doesn’t deserve to be watched. We’re left wondering if this is a consequence of the Wanderers depression, one of the reasons why he trudges through the dark. The shame he feels brings him deeper into his depressive state, forcing him to move through the city in the blackness, allowing him to be alone. Immediately after this interaction, the Wanderer tells us about “an interrupted cry / […] But not to call me back or say good-bye” (lns 8, 10). This cry makes us sympathetic for the Wanderer. As he stops to listen, we yearn for the Wanderer. We hope this cry is for him, someone who misses him and acknowledges his disappearance into the night. However, our hopes are dashed alongside the Wanderer’s when this is not the case. There is a crippling sadness that comes with this realization, a nagging feeling that maybe the Wanderer really is alone in the populated city. Then, the poem closes with the line from which it began, “I have been one acquainted with the night” (ln 14). We are left without a happy ending. In fact, we end where we started. From the Wanderers point of view, depression is circular and inescapable. This is not the first time he has walked the city streets at night, and it won’t be the last. As far as the Wanderer can tell, there is no escaping the night that he has found himself in.
Peeling back the syntactical layers to “Acquainted with the Night” reveals deeper meanings through the poem’s setting and word choice. Frost is careful to point out that the lonely Wanderer has “outwalked the furthest city light,” and “looked down the saddest city lane” (lns 3-4). This urban setting is an oddly fitting place for the events in the poem to unfold. Frost sidesteps a more conventionally solitude setting, such as the vast wilderness or an empty desert, places in nature where people commonly seek restoration, and instead selects a heavily populated city. This artfully displays the negative effects depression can elicit once it finds a victim. Although the Wanderer is physically surrounded by people, mentally, he is alone. Depression has found such a tight grip on the Wanderer that he has convinced himself there is no one to turn to, even in the midst of a bustling city. This rather ironic setting allows the reader to better understand that being in proximity to others does not necessarily mean we are emotionally close to them. Frost’s message that depression can feel unrelenting and inescapable shines through in his use of the past tense throughout the poem as well. The Wanderer repeats the words “I have” various times throughout the piece. Echoing this phrase shows the reader that the events aren’t taking place in a single night. This isn’t the first time the Wanderer has averted his eyes from the watchman. This isn’t the first time the Wanderer has listened for an interrupting cry. He is trapped in his depressive routine. This acquaintance with the night isn’t new, and it isn’t a relationship that will be ending.
Where “Acquainted with the Night” leaves us hopeless, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” on the other hand, reminds us that there is light in the blackness. The poem opens with the image of a woman adapting to change. She steps out of the light and takes on the darkness: “We uncertain step / For newness of the night” (lns 5-6). Our brave Explorer steps into an environment of uncertainty. She has left the comfort of the light and is now engulfed in darkness. The reason behind this transition into darkness is uncertain, but Dickinson's message is clear: the Explorer has entered a difficult period of her life, and she is not yet sure how to deal with the new circumstances. She has little knowledge of her surroundings and the night she finds herself in makes her uneasy. When she gains her bearings however, she fits her “Vision to the Dark – / And meet[s] the Road – erect –” (lns 7-8). Her eyes begin to adjust to the dark. While the darkness around her is still apparent, our brave Explorer has a better grasp of her environment and is ready to take on the road ahead. Life is still difficult, but she has not given up hope. She is ready to continue moving and taking on life’s challenges. The Explorer continues through the dark, but not without trouble. She admits, “The Bravest – grope a little – / And sometimes hit a Tree” (lns 13-14). The darkness she is stuck in is difficult to maneuver through. Dickinson acknowledges that depression takes practice to understand, and mistakes are inevitable while searching for the light. However, our brave Explorer is not despondent, as was the lonely Wanderer. She understands that when darkness is cast upon our lives may be overwhelming, but she closes the piece off by explaining that staying strong and preserving hope is most important in these difficult times. Our Explorer grows accustomed to the dark, affirming, “Life steps almost straight” (ln 20). She finds her way through the darkness; her light is back, and she has grown from her experience. While she is no longer in the dark, the knowledge she gains is still with her because she has matured from her experience. Life will never revert completely back to what it was. Dickinson makes it clear with her final line that life isn’t supposed to return to what it was before her depression. To make it through the darkness, our Explorer grows as a person.
Dickinson fills “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” with grammatical nuances which serve to drive the poem’s message home and further establish the tone of the piece. Throughout the poem, there are many words capitalized in seemingly randomized places. However, as we take a deeper look at those capitalized words we see a theme begin to emerge. Dickinson frequently capitalizes words such as “Dark,” “Midnight,” and “Evening,” as well as vocabulary including “Light,” and “Lamp” (lns 1, 2, 3, 10, 18). Placing emphasis on these words highlights the conflict within the story. The poem pits light against dark, and through her capitalization of these words we can almost hear our inner voices shouting out as we read them. Dickinson wants us to see that these words are capitalized for a reason; their antithetical nature works to further her message of finding Light in the Dark. Dickinson also halts the reader by repeatedly placing dashes amidst the poem. One example of this is shown in the line “And so of larger – Darknesses –” (ln 9). The dashes ensure that we take our time maneuvering around the word “darkness.” We are forced to struggle with our Explorer. The darkness of the mind is not one that is overcome quickly, and Dickinson inserts these pauses to remind us of this. She forcibly slows the pacing of the poem, and we are given a window into the struggles presented by depression. Whether we like it or not, it takes time for light to drown out the night.
These poems cast light on the different phases of the night, giving us a clear view of the struggles of depression. In its midst, we are like the lonely Wanderer, trapped inside our own head, positive there is no escape to the endless cycles of the night. Then, as our eyes adjust to the darkness, we graduate from the Wanderer to the Explorer. It becomes clear that reality isn’t as grim as it had once seemed, and life steps almost straight once again. While “Acquainted with the Night” and “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” both provide wildly contrasting views of depression, the poems are not contradictory in the lessons they teach. The Wanderer and the Explorer aren’t contradictory characters; they are the embodiments of someone struggling with depression in its various stages. Through these pieces we can learn the different perspectives of the same problem, and shed light on the darkness of depression as a whole.