The poem, Frost At Midnight, belongs to Coleridge’s short celebrated verses called Conversational Poems. It was composed by the poet to celebrate the birth of his son, Hartley Coleridge, at Stowey in 1796. It is characterized by the poet’s Wordsworthian attitude to Nature. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge here looks upon Nature as sympathetic to his own mood and condition. He considers her his friend, philosopher, and guide. The poem is a pretty lyric of emotion, and reflects the poet’s meditative mood, pantheistic view of Nature, descriptive ease, and the ability to delineate word pictures.
Frost at Midnight Analysis
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.
One night when the poet’s mind was obsessed by philosophical, subtle, thoughts, and his little son was lying asleep in his cradle beside his bed, the poet looks out of the cottage window and finds the atmosphere covered with frost. It is about midnight and Nature around his cottage is calm and quiet to the last degree.
The poet, looking on the frost in the night atmosphere outside his cottage, says to himself: The frost is doing its secret service, in the scheme of Nature. It is not being helped by any wind. The night is quiet, yet the owlet’s loud hoot can be heard. It is as loud as the earlier one. He says all the inmates of his cottage are at rest and asleep. They have left him alone to enjoy the peace of this solitude which suits his philosophical tendencies. He says only his cradled little son is sleeping beside him peacefully. The poet further says that the night atmosphere is so calm that its strange, extreme, silence disturbs his thoughtful mind, through its strangeness.
The sea, the hill, the wood, and the village of countless activities of human life all are as silent as dreams. Even the thin blue flame seems to be asleep and still on his slowly dying fire. The poet says in this silence of Nature, its motion reflects its silent sympathy with him who is still awake and look upon it as an agreeable form. His unoccupied spirit interprets its little capricious movements in the light of its own moods. For it seeks its echo or reflection everywhere and plays with a thought as if it were a plaything.
But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!
In the second stanza, the mind of the poet travels back to past, being stirred by the associations of the thin film of light. He remembers that at Christ Hospital School, he would look on the fireplace in expectation of that thin film of light. He believed that the film was a sign of a visitor to see him next morning. He says, and often, having seen that film, he was filled with the sweet vision of his birth-place, and of the old church-tower whose bells produced the only music for the poor men of the place.
Those bells rang from morning to evening on a hot fair-day. They rang so sweet that even their memory at school moved his being and filled him with a passionate joy. He says their tinkling sounds fill on his ears like the clear sounds of prophecy of future events. So, he kept looking over that film and imagined sweet things till he fell asleep, and sleep prolonged his sweet dreams. Next morning, his mind would become occupied with the thoughts of the visit of his some friends or relatives.
Being afraid of the stern school master, he would also pretend to be reading, and fixed his eyes on his book. But his thoughts were concerned with the expectation of a visitor. So the words in the book would just swim before his eyes. If the door opened a little, he would hastily cast a glance at it. His heart would leap up in excitement. And he would expect to see the expected visitor’s face. He hoped to see a townsman, an aunt, a beloved sister, or a playmate of childhood days when they were dressed alike.
Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
In this stanza, the poet again turns his attention to his little son asleep in the cradle, and tells that dear baby, your gentle breathing are audible in this deep silence. He tells his little son that they fill up the spaces of his vacant moods and also those of the momentary pauses in his thoughts. He says that he was brought up in the great city of London; he was obliged to live in rooms of dim light, and so saw nothing beautiful except the sky and the stars. But, you, my baby son, shall be brought up here in the countryside. Here you shall wander as freely as the breeze, along lake-margins and sandy beaches, beneath the steep, rugged, rocks of ancient hills, and clouds which by virtue of their vast, pliable gases, put on the shapes of lakes, seas, and rugged rocks.
Thus, you, my child, shall see the lovely shapes and hear the intelligible sounds of Nature’s eternal language uttered by God: He lives in eternal Heaven, yet reflects Himself in all things and creatures. He also contains all things in Himself. As Nature, he is the great universal teacher to living creatures: He shall mould your spirit through his influences. He shall give you Nature sweet company whose delights make you ask for more and more.
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
In this final stanza of the poem, the poet says that he will rear him that is Hartley Coleridge in the open atmosphere of Nature. The objects of Nature will cast their influences on him. They will also be his object-lessons. For Nature is a great teacher to mankind. She will shape and develop his personality in the natural manner.
In Nature’s lap, Hartley will come to love all the seasons for the sake of their individual gifts and characteristics. He will also love the time when rain-drops fall from the caves, or when such water drops are frozen by the frost and seen hanging from the edges of the thatched-cottage roof, in the quiet moonlight.