The narrator describes his loneliness as he walks the isolated city streets at night. He has walked beyond the city limits and along every city lane, but has never found anything to comfort him in his depression. Even when he makes contact with another person (such as the watchman), the narrator is unwilling to express his feelings because he knows that no one will understand him. At one point he hears a cry from a nearby street, but realizes that it is not meant for him; no one is waiting for him. He looks up at the moon in the sky and acknowledges that time has no meaning for him because his isolation is unending.
This poem is written in strict iambic pentameter, with the fourteen lines of a traditional sonnet. In terms of rhyme scheme, Frost uses the “terza rima” ("third rhyme") pattern of ABA CDC DAD AA, which is exceptionally difficult to write in English.
This poem is commonly understood to be a description of the narrator’s experiences with depression. The most crucial element of his depression is his complete isolation. Frost emphasizes this by using the first-person term “I” at the beginning of seven of the lines. Even though the watchman has a physical presence in the poem, he does not play a mental or emotional role: the narrator, the sole “I,” remains solitary. Similarly, when the narrator hears the “interrupted cry” from another street, he clarifies that the cry is not meant for him, because there is no one waiting for him at home.
The narrator’s inability to make eye contact with the people that he meets suggests that his depression has made him incapable of interacting in normal society. While normal people are associated with the day (happiness, sunlight, optimism), the narrator is solely acquainted with the night, and thus can find nothing in common with those around him. The narrator is even unable to use the same sense of time as the other people in the city: instead of using a clock that provides a definitive time for every moment, the narrator relies solely on “one luminary clock” in the sky.
Ironically, since night is the only time that he emerges from his solitude, the narrator has even less opportunity to meet someone who can pull him from his depression. His acquaintance with the night constructs a cycle of depression that he cannot escape.
Frost adds to the uncertainty inherent in the poem by incorporating the present perfect tense, which is used to describe something from the recent past, as well as something from the past that is still ongoing in the present. It seems as if the narrator’s depression could be from the recent past because of the phrase: “I have been…” However, the verb tense also suggests that his depression could still be a constant, if unseen, force. With that in mind, it is unclear whether the narrator will truly be able to come back to society or if his depression will resurface and force him to be, once again, acquainted with the night.