Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537
One of the most important themes is that of the “child of nature,” which finds expression in a number of Coleridge’s other poems of this period, including “The Dungeon” (1798) and “The Nightingale” (1798). “Frost at Midnight” contrasts the stifling effect of life in the city, where as a child the poet was “Pent in cloisters dim,” with the liberating effect of an upbringing in nature. In the city, education is characterized by the “stern preceptor” and the unwilling student. In nature, God himself is the teacher, and he reveals himself through the beauties of his creation.
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This suggests the underlying religious, even mystical, theme to the poem: the development of the poet’s ability to perceive the eternal, unifying, divine spirit through all the diverse forms of time. This is beautifully captured in the last verse paragraph, beginning “Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,” which reveals the growth in the poet’s consciousness that has occurred during the poem. In the opening scene, the poet, in his restlessness, felt at odds with the peaceful environment. Now a “sweetness,” a sense of quiet communion with the outer world, has been added that was not there before. The “secret ministry of frost” has done its work. This can be understood at both the literal and the symbolic level. At a literal level, the frost has performed its ministry by freezing the water drops into icicles which shine as they reflect the light of the moon. Symbolically, this suggests a kind of spiritual radiance. The frost, which can be taken to symbolize the workings of the creative imagination, has “frozen” a particle of nature so that it is seen to contain or reflect something larger and more majestic than itself, the eternal light of the “quiet Moon.” The moon is at once one of the “lovely shapes . . ./ Of that eternal language, which thy God/ Utters” and the quietness of the poet’s own mind in his state of meditative illumination.
As this analysis suggests, it is hardly possible in this poem to think in conventional ways about inner and outer phenomena. The two are inseparably interwoven. Coleridge himself said as much in an entry in his notebook:In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-gathering thro’ the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists, than observing any thing new. Even when that latter is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling as if that new phenomenon were the dim Awaking of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature.
The relevance of this to “Frost at Midnight” can be seen not only in terms of the frost and the moon, which are at once inner and outer realities, but also in the film of soot which Coleridge transforms into an image of the workings of his own mind, which is “every where/ Echo or mirror seeking of itself.” Seen in this light, the entire poem is self-referential, an attempt by the poet to probe the nature of his own mind, which is also discovered to be the nature of the universe.