Coleridge's Poems

Summary and Analysis of "Frost at Midnight" (1798)

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Summary

In this conversation poem, Coleridge is the speaker and the silent listener is his infant son, Hartley Coleridge. The setting of the poem is late at night, when Coleridge is the only one awake in the household. Coleridge sits next to his son’s cradle and reflects on the frost falling outside his home. He takes this instance of solitude to allow his reflections to expand to his love of nature.

Coleridge describes to his son how his love of nature dates back to his boyhood. During school, Coleridge would gaze out the schoolhouse windows and admire the frost falling outside and would daydream about leaving the city and returning to his rural birthplace. Coleridge tells his son that he is delighted that his son will have more opportunities to observe the beauty of nature and will not be “reared/ In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim” as Coleridge himself was. Coleridge then wishes that “all seasons shall be sweet” to his son and that his son will learn to appreciate all aspects of nature.

Analysis

In “Frost at Midnight,” Coleridge explores the relationship between environment and happiness and also reflects on the idyllic innocence of childhood. The construction of this poem, in which Coleridge’s infant son is the silent listener, is significant for Coleridge’s musings on the above themes. In “Coleridge the Revisionary: Surrogacy and Structure in the Conversation Poems,” Peter Barry highlights the “surrogacy” element that is present in many of Coleridge’s conversation poems. Barry defines surrogacy as “the core of the central meditative episode” that is “a transaction between the speaking persona and a surrogate self, that is, another person onto whom are projected or disposed key elements of the speaker’s own personality, dilemmas, or thought processes” (602). In “Frost at Midnight,” the infant Hartley serves as Coleridge’s surrogate. After Coleridge shares his lamentations on his physical and emotional confinement in urban England during the latter part of his childhood, Coleridge declares (and rejoices in the fact) that Hartley will be brought up in a more pastoral life and will be closer to nature than his father was. Thus, Coleridge projects on his son his own longing for childhood innocence and his belief that closeness to nature brings happiness.

The familiar motifs of the power of sleep, dreams, and imagination are also present in “Frost at Midnight.” The image that connects these themes is the “thin blue flame” in the fireplace. In “Coleridge and the Scene of Lyric Description,” Christopher R. Miller identifies the “flickering of [the] ember” as a “[counterpoint to] Coleridge’s own insomniac musings” (521). Likewise, Peter Barry asserts that the dying flame is representative of Coleridge’s reproof of the “directionlessness in his thinking” (620). Barry further clarifies Coleridge’s use of the dying flame as a metaphor for his “idling Spirit”: “like the flame, his own intellectual spirit is puny, unable to achieve lift-off, purposeless, narcissistic, and prone to interpret everything as a reflection of itself, so that thought becomes an idle plaything rather than a purposeful instrument” (610). Ultimately, in the first stanza of the poem, Coleridge laments that his insomnia stifles his imagination. Perhaps this is why Coleridge takes pleasure in watching his son sleep, for the poet understands that dreams allow for the flourishing of creativity.

Coleridge begins by creating a tone of solemn gentleness in the first line, as the frost is described as performing a "secret ministry." The frost ministers without the help of the wind (line 2), thus taking the bite out of the chilly night air and maintaining a silence throughout the landscape. The only sound is the owl of lines 2-3, but its sudden interruption of the quiet is counterpoised with the sleepers in the cottage whose rest remains undisturbed. The speaker enjoys this midnight solitude, although he notes that he is not truly alone: his "cradled infant slumbers peacefully" beside him (line 7), The baby's presence serves only to accentuate his solitude since this child, too, sleeps while the speaker alone is awake at this late hour. He finds the absolute stillness disturbing at first, taking comfort in the seeming sympathy of the only stirring object in the house or beyond--a flim across the grate is the "sole unquiet thing" (line 16) and the speaker sees a similarity between himself and the "puny flaps and freaks" of the grate (line 20). Just as the insensible film "interprets" the moving of air without a guiding reason, so too does the speaker "makes a toy of Thought" (line 23).

By shifting the scene of the second stanza to his boyhood and summer time, Coleridge manages to create a sense of this inner discomfort that the speaker feels in his midnight vigil in the cottage. The boyhood speaker is also looking out a window, discontent with where he sits (inside a schoolroom, attempting to study) and longs for the wild familiarity of nature. Although he attempts a "mock study" of his "swimming book" (line 38) when the stern preceptor draws near, nonetheless he finds his thought already out the half-open door he spies out of the corner of his eye. He seeks a "stranger" (lines 26 and 41) which he sees "fluttering" out the window--perhaps a butterfly or bird which comes to his memory as he sits--as an adult--within his winter cottage listening to the rustling flap on the grate. He finds this stranger desirable, "more beloved" than townsman, aunt, or sister to his eyes (line 42). This spirit of nature is in fact his "play-mate" when they are "clothed alike" (both outside enjoying the pervasive presence of nature).

The speaker's thoughts return to the present, specifically to his sleeping baby. The sounds he hears are now the breathing of the child, which fills the moments between his somber thoughts. He is moved to wonder at the baby's beauty, and turns his mind to the "far other lore/and in far other scenes" which the child will one day learn. He notes his own limited upbringing--kept as he was in "the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim" (line 52) where the only natural beauty he could ever see was the sky and stars. This baby, on the other hand, will wander the mountains and fields, gaining an education only Nature in all its glory can bestow. The child will learn "that eternal language, which thy God/Utters" (lines 60-61); in other words, he will learn the spirit of Nature and see in it the wonder, majesty, and beauty of its Creator.

The speaker declares that an education gained in the realms of nature will make all seasons "sweet to thee," giving the baby a perspective on life that the speaker cannot fully hold because of his own limited exposure to nature in its various forms. While the father has difficulty settling in to the silent solitude of a frosty midnight, and similarly could not focus on his studies indoors while summer spent itself without, the son will have no difficulty embracing nature in her various dresses, because he will be more connected to the natural order than his father ever could be.