In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Frost at Midnight" what does the "secret ministry of frost" mean?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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One of the first-generation Romantic poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge—a master in a movement known for its praise of nature—begins "Frost at Midnight" with the image of frost, which starts the his discussion regarding how his child's life will be different than his own.

The first reason the frost's "secret ministry" is so important structurally is that it is the primary image that begins a series of nature-imagery in a poem completely about leaving the trappings of city life behind (where Coleridge was raised) and immersing his child in the beauty of the natural world.

The "secret ministry" speaks of the abiding and constant nature of frost. First, "ministry" is defined as...

...a person or thing through which something is accomplished

Unlike a snow storm or gale winds, frost works quietly. It does not draw attention, like...

The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
It is more subtle than...
...the eave-drops fall Heard only in the trances of the blast...
One of the things the author comments on after introducing the image of the frost is how disturbingly silent the night is. It is so quiet that he can hear his child...
...Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm, Fill up the intersperséd vacancies And momentary pauses of the thought!
It is in this deep and "extreme silentness," the frost works without a sound as it completes its task. However, it is mentioned again in the last sentence. The abiding frost that endeavors to complete its job working without the notice of most people, is also a powerful force even while silent. For as quietly as it moves to spread across grass or a pane of glass, it can also alter rain drops, to...
...hang them up in silent icicles...
The author notes here that all seasons will be "sweet" to his child—the warm months...

Whether the summer clothe the general earth

With greenness...

His child will grow up in the midst of beautiful springs amid the late snow, or while the damp of the morning steams as the morning sun hits the "thatch" roof...

...or the redbreast sit and sing

Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch

Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch

Smokes in the sun-thaw...

The child will be surrounded by the wonder of the "blast" of the rain storm...

...the eave-drops fall

Heard only in the trances of the blast...

However, the influences of the seasons, of nature itself, will not always come with roar of winds or the aggressive onslaught of a raging storm, but must also be found in the quiet of evening—and perhaps the poet is writing this as a reminder to his child. Regardless of the bustle of society and the worries and workings of its people, nature is patient and relentless, just as the frost at work. Coleridge reminds his child (and the reader) that frost has its own quiet power, as the "Frost performs its secret ministry / Unhelped by any wind."

...the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang [eave-drops] up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

One might get the feeling that the frost is personified once again— for in this last segment, it sounds as if the powerful frost offers up the beautiful frozen rain as a tribute to the coldest of images in nature—the Moon which (also in silence) sits and watches, like a queen on her throne.

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