The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Frost at Midnight” is a seventy-four-line “conversation” poem, written in blank verse paragraphs of varying lengths. In the middle of a February night, the poet is sitting alone in his cottage. (The location is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s cottage at Nether Stowey, near Bristol.) His baby son sleeps peacefully by his side; the other members of the household have all gone to bed. The poet watches frost forming silently on the windows and hears the hooting of owls. Apart from that, everything is silent. It is so calm and quiet that it makes the poet uncomfortable. He thinks of all the “numberless goings-on of life” that exist in the nearby village, and in the nearby wood and sea, yet nothing can be heard.

Then his attention is drawn to the fireplace, and he notices a film of soot fluttering on the bar of the grate. He feels a vague kinship with it because it is the only thing he can perceive that seems as restless as he is. Coleridge explained, in a note attached to the poem, that in England such films were often called “strangers” and were thought to announce the arrival of an absent friend. This sends the poet into a reverie in which he reflects on his childhood. He thinks back to how, while at school, he had often gazed at these “strangers” in the grate. Under the intimidating eye of his stern teacher, he would then pretend to study. Whenever the door opened, or even half-opened, he would look up expectantly, hoping to see the...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Frost at Midnight” is often regarded as the finest of Coleridge’s “conversation” poems. It perfects the lyric form that Coleridge had already developed in such poems as “The Eolian Harp” (1796), “Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement” (1796), and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” (1800). These poems all possess a circular structure. Coleridge believed that the structure of a poem should reflect the structure of existence, and he saw the latter as cyclic in nature, whether at the macrocosmic or microcosmic level. All things proceed from the universal One, are individualized into the many, but are continually turning backward toward the One, their source and true nature. Ultimately, everything returns to the One. As Coleridge once wrote in a letter to publisher Joseph Cottle, “The common end of all narrative, nay of all, Poems is to convert a series into a Whole: to make those events, which in real or imagined History move on in a strait Line, assume to our Understandings a circular motion—the snake with its Tail in its Mouth.”

This is clearly the structural pattern of “Frost at Midnight.” The poem begins with a description of an outer scene in which the “secret ministry of frost” is at work. As with all of Coleridge’s conversation poems, the outer scene stimulates the poet and sends him on an inward, meditative journey. In this case, he reflects at length...

(The entire section is 426 words.)