The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

“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.

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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 “stranger’s” face, whomever it might be. Often, too, in school he had daydreamed about the town where he had been born and where he had spent his early childhood. He remembers how entranced he had been by the ringing of church bells, “the poor man’s only music.”

In the third verse paragraph, the poet’s attention turns back to the present, to the sleeping infant at his side. The gentle breathing of the baby punctuates the calm, and the poet is filled with tender feelings for him. Having just looked back at his own life, the poet now looks forward to the future life of his baby. He is elated because he believes that the child will grow up in an entirely different, and far superior, environment than that in which the poet had spent his early days. The poet was reared in the city, but his child will be able to enjoy, and be nourished by, a more natural environment of lakes, sandy shores, and mountains. By learning to appreciate the beauty of creation, he will also learn about God, who can be found in every aspect of the created world.

Finally, the poet evokes the passage of the seasons, using the opportunity to round off the poem where it began, with the silent activity of the frost. He declares to his baby that “all seasons shall be sweet to thee,” even the depths of winter, when the “secret ministry of frost” leaves icicles “Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.”

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

“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 on incidents in his childhood before returning to the present with some consoling thoughts about the future of his child. The poem ends where it began, with the “secret ministry of frost,” although there has been an enormous growth in the meaning and significance attached to the phrase.

The imagery of the poem carefully interweaves sound and silence, movement and stillness. This is particularly apparent in the first verse paragraph. Only the owlet’s cry breaks the “strange/ And extreme silentness” of the night, and there is a comparable emphasis on stillness. There is not a breath of wind, and the flame of the low-burning fire “quivers not.” Only the film of soot shows any movement, reminding the poet of the restlessness of his own mind. It is this combination of stillness and motion that sets the scene for the inward direction of the poet’s mind, as it seeks to discover more about its own nature. The “gentle breathings” of the poet’s son, “heard in this deep calm,” continue the image pattern, which is reaffirmed in the final lines of the poem, with the “silent icicles,/ Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.”

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