‘Frost at Midnight’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a conversational poem, a form quite popular in the romantic age. In the poem, the poet, in a moment of solitude, gives voice to his most intimate feelings and expresses his beliefs about nature and the significant role it plays in the life of man. In fact, the poem is a very personal restatement of the abiding themes of English Romanticism.
Coleridge dwells upon the effect of the beauty of nature on poetic imagination, the kinship of nature and man who endlessly seeks his own self and identity in the objects of the natural world, the role of Mother Nature in nourishing a child, the striking contrast between the claustrophobic city and the wide and open countryside where the mind can roam free. All these are typically romantic concerns that come up in the poet’s mind and finds expression in the verse monologue. This paper will attempt to analyze and understand these Romantic beliefs of Coleridge as expressed in the ‘Frost at Midnight’.
The poet’s almost reverential love for the beauty of nature finds expression in the opening line of the poem: “The Frost performs its secret ministry/ Unhelped by any wind. ” The frost is perceived as performing a secret and silent religious rite, magical and momentous in import. The silence of the night, the almost extinguished fire, the hooting of a solitary owl and the inaudible life surrounding the poet moves him rapture of bliss until he ecstatically cries out: Sea, hill, and wood, This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life, Inaudible as dreams! The first twenty-three lines of the poem in fact sets the mood for the poet’s ‘abstruser musings’ that takes him down in an evocative journey down the memory lane and makes him dwell on the mystery of Mother Nature. The ‘strange and extreme silentness’ allows Coleridge’s mind to roam freely seeking its own reflection in the objects of nature. The poet finds in the thin blue fluttering flame of an almost extinguished fire, a companion of his mind’s wanderings.
That the poet imposes his own subjectivity and feelings on this fluttering flame is a typically romantic attitude. We find such personal interpretation of nature also in other romantics, for instance, in P. B. Shelley’s poems like To a Skylark or Ode to the West Wind or Wordsworth’s Daffodils. The ‘idling spirit’ of the poet, carried away by the power of its own passion, everywhere finds an “echo or mirror seeking of itself, / and makes a toy of thought. ”
In the second part of the poem, the poet’s mind walks back in time to find himself again in the “great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim” where he spent his miserable childhood cut off from the nourishing force of life-giving nature. The poet recalls how in his childhood he had sought similar sympathy in the fluttering flam of the dying fire, usually referred to as the ‘stranger’, as it was generally believed that it portended the arrival of one. Imprisoned within the lifeless stonewalls of his school, Coleridge’s mind, would seek comfort in seeing the blue flame.
He would continue hoping to see a stranger’s face every time the door of the classroom opened, a stranger newly arrived from his native village, a stranger who had come to take him back to the lap of nature. This theme too – the cramping of the soul in the city where one is denied the bliss of nature – is a stock one in Romantic poetry. We find the same theme reiterated in John Keats’s ‘To one who has been Long in City Pent’ as well as many of William Wordsworth’s poems.
In fact one of the declared agenda of Romanticism was the ‘return to nature’ and the passion romantic poets felt about the natural world finds beautiful expression in Coleridge’s reminiscence of his childhood days and his birth place in this poem. Living a pent up life in the city, Coleridge sought relief and pleasure in the dreams of the country, dreams that rang with the lilting music of the church bells heard from the ‘old church tower’ of his native village. However, dreams were merely a temporary respite, a sham escape from the hardness of reality and the more he dreamt the more he “brooded all the following morn”.
In the final part of the poem, the poet’s wandering mind, aroused by reminiscing about his own childhood, focuses on the child, his own son, sleeping peacefully in its cradle and the poet paints an euphoric picture of the joys that this child will find growing up in the unsullied laps of nature, a joy that he himself was denied by those cramping stone walls of his urban bringing up. This part touches yet another aspect of the romantic poetic revolution, viz. the instinctive bond of love, care and understanding between a child with Mother Nature.
Coleridge wishes for his child an idyllic up bringing reminiscent of the famous Lucy poems of William Wordsworth: But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds, In Romantic lore, as iterated by Blake and later by Wordsworth, the nature is a reflection of the Almighty’s will and only in nature human beings might find the clue to the meaning of life. Coleridge reiterates this philosophy of nature being the truest expression of the Omnipotent in this poem.
The poet imagines his child finding in the glorious beauty of the natural world that learning which will enable him to understand the words of God: 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! As many critics of Coleridge has observed, this quest for an adequate symbology in the natural world was the focus of much of Coleridge’s own religious and aesthetic philosophy.
In ‘Frost at Midnight’, this quest comes as a vision fulfilled but not in him but in the child who will from his very childhood learn the nature of language, a prospect the poet himself was denied. Like most verse monologues of the romantic period, ‘Frost at Midnight’ is also written in unrhymed iambic pentameter lines or blank verse. It is the rhythm made famous by the great Elizabethan dramatists of England and perfectly suits the conversational mood of the poem.
Moreover, this conversational mode as well as the form of the poem also enables Coleridge to maintain a highly personal idiom throughout and present issues and themes of great philosophical significance as ramblings of a poet’s idle mind. This attitude allows him to draw in the reader who follows the poet’s mind as thought after thought rises in him on a lonely winter night. However, this is not to suggest that the poem in any way lacks structural coherence. In fact, despite its rambling nature, it is one of the most perfectly structured compositions of Coleridge and the progression of thought is designed to perfection.
The poem begins with the poet’s inability to wholly read the secrets of nature (“The Frost performs its secret ministry”) and comes full circle in a vision where his son finds the words of the Divine Creator in the objects of nature. This is no mere accident. Nor is it chance that the poem which began as an utterance of loneliness, (the image of the poet in his solitude) culminates in an affirmation of the irreducible bond between nature and man: Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee, Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness… …Or if the secret ministry of frost Shall hang them up in silent icicles, Quietly shining to the quiet Moon. In fact the journey of the poet’s mind in the poem, is a journey from loneliness to a visionary union with nature. The ‘abstruser musings’, the ‘strange and extreme silentness’ of the opening stanza, somehow separates the poet from the life and nature surrounding him. The poet at first recoils in his reminiscence, remembering school days, when he would seek the union with nature in his dreams and superstitions.
However, returning to the present, he finds the potential of such a union in his own child and proceeds to celebrate the discovery of this unity. Thus it might be concluded that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Frost at Midnight’ is a beautiful assertion of the inherent Romantic tendencies of the age. What makes the poem even more attractive is the highly personal note that Coleridge brings in to the poem. The celebration of irreducible bond between man and nature in the final lines of the poem brings with it a sublime and universal euphoria that washes away the note of loneliness from the poem.