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ENG3351 Jandy Stone

Dr. Richard Russell 9/12/06

“Frost at Midnight”
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

explicated by Jandy Stone

In “Frost at Midnight,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s dissatisfaction with his boyhood

spent at school in London emerges when a strangely still night invites him to recall both

his school life and his happier life as a country lad, and to channeled that dissatisfaction

into a resolution that his infant son will not share in Coleridge’s unhappy confinement in

the city, but will grow up in the natural surroundings of the countryside. Many of the

ideals and techniques of the Romantic Movement inform both the mood and the content

of the poem.

The meter, largely iambic pentameter, imitates natural conversation, and imparts to

the reader the calm, dreamy mood of the speaker himself as he reflects on his

surroundings, his childhood, and his son. The few times the spell is broken, it is because

the speaker’s thoughts are interrupted, or he is overcome with particular emotion about

his youth or love for his son. The frost of the title opens the poem, quietly forming

icicles upon the speaker’s cottage, “its secret ministry” (1) . There is a mysterious quality

to the frost—it forms secretly, almost without any sign of its doing so, and its ministry

spreads this mystical sense to the night in general, and to the speaker himself. The winter

night is calm and quiet, with no wind. Into this calm, the owlet’s cry is loud and

surprising, emphasized by sharp breaks in diction: “The owlet’s cry / Came loud—and

hark, again! loud as before” (3) . The speaker is alone except for his sleeping son: “The

inmates of my cottage, all at rest, / Have left me to that solitude, which suits / Abstruser

musings” (4-6) . Despite the connotation of “solitude” in Romantic poetry being a

positive attribute, the calm of this night is almost too much for the speaker: “’Tis calm

indeed! so calm, that it disturbs / and vexes meditation with its strange / And extreme

silentness” (8-10) . “Abstruser musings” in line 6 refers to thoughts that are concealed,
or difficult to comprehend; it could be that he is trying to concentrate on something else,

perhaps some difficult work he is trying to accomplish, but his meditation on it is

“vexed” (9) by the stillness, and his mind wanders without a focus. His mind flits to

“Sea, hill, and wood” (10) and village, with the “numberless goings on of life” (12) that

fill them. The repetition of the “sea, hill, and wood” idea on lines 10 and 11 underscore

their “goings on” being numberless. But these goings on are little more than mild

distractions to his mind right now, and certainly do not stimulate his senses. In the

coming flashback to his early youth, the sense of hearing becomes quite distinct, but

these movements of village life are “Inaudible as dreams!” (13) . Even the fire in his

grate has burned out, no longer a source of sound or sight.

But one thing does move, and it catches his attention: “Only that film, which fluttered

on the grate, / Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing” (15) . This film, or piece of soot,

becomes the catalyst to take his memory back to his childhood. According to Coleridge’s

note, these leftover pieces of soot are called “strangers,” and may signal the arrival of a

friend. One definition of the word “strange” includes the idea of something so unfamiliar

or exceptional that it excites wonder. The speaker has already termed the silentness of

the night “strange” (line 9), and now this piece of film is a “stranger.” And even though a

piece of soot probably is not an unfamiliar sight to the speaker, in this strange night, in

this strange quiet, it certainly does excite his wonder—as ordinary objects are wont to do

in Romantic poetry. In fact, since it is the only thing that is moving in the extraordinary

stillness, it seems to him that he and the film are the only things alive, giving him a

kinship with it: “Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature / Gives it dim sympathies

with me who live, / Making it a companionable form” (17-19) . Its capricious turns and
flutterings speak to his Spirit, his inspiration, and together they carry his memory back to

his school days. The end of the stanza breaks line 23 in two, both emphasizing the

connection between the film and the memory it evokes as well as clearly separating the

present from the time being recollected. Coleridge is not interested in merging past and

present, but rather wants to vividly recall the past in the calm of the present, and pass the

lessons of the past on to his son.

The phrase “how oft”s is repeated on lines 23-24, emphasizing that the speaker is

remembering a habitual experience, not merely a one-time event. He often saw a film, a

“stranger,” in the grate when he was a boy in school: “How oft, at school…have I gazed

upon the bars, / To watch that fluttering stranger!” (24-26) . There is also a doubling

effect here indicated by the doubled “how oft”s, as the film in the older man’s study

moves him to recollect his school days, when he saw a film that moved him to recollect

his early childhood days. This is an intriguing use of the film as literary device. One

might expect the sight of the film to have taken the speaker directly back to a time in his

early, happier youth when he saw a similar film, but instead, he is transported back to a

time connected not only by the physical appearance of the film, but also the mental

experience of daydreaming while watching a film. This intermediate past then leads to

the desired past; yet, the intermediate past is not a superfluous step, for it acts as a lens to

contextualize the further past and give additional weight to the speaker’s desire for his

son to share the once-removed past rather than the intermediate one.

In the intermediate past, the speaker daydreamed about his youth in the country,

before he was sent to school in London—a time chiefly characterized here by the sound

of the old church-tower bells, which “stirred and haunted me / With a wild pleasure” (31-
32) . The schoolboy-speaker was only roused from these perpetual thoughts when he

hoped to be rescued from the school by his family, specifically his sister: “For still I

hoped to see the stranger’s face, / Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved, / My play-

mate when we were both clothed alike!” (41-43) . The repeated “still” in lines 40 and 41

implies that he did not consciously expect them to be there, but his desire to be rid of

London and back in the country was so strong that he could not help hoping that the

friend promised by the superstition of the film would come. His mind conjured an image

of a time before he and his sister wore gender-specific clothes, suggesting that his longing

was not only spacial, but also temporal—that he wanted to return to an earlier time as

well as another place.

But the speaker cannot physically return to that place and time, and rather than

remain in reverie, he comes back to the present and applies his musings to his son. His

unhappy school experiences in London and his memory of his country happiness moves

him to resolve that his son will have the extended boyhood in the country that he did not

have: “My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart / With tender gladness, thus to look at

thee, / and think that thou shalt learn far other lore / And in far other scenes!” (48-51) .

He not only wants his son to be free from the confines of the gloomy city; he wants him

to learn the things that nature has to teach him rather than what he could learn from men:

“so shalt thou see and hear / The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible / Of that eternal

language, which thy God / Utters, who from eternity doth teach / Himself in all, and all

things in himself” (58-63) . In the final paragraph, the speaker states his certainty that

because of the boy’s experience of and tutoring by nature, he will love nature in all
seasons, from summer’s greenness to the winter’s chill, when “the secret ministry of frost

/ Shall hang them [the eave-drops] up in silent icicles” (72-73) .

“Frost at Midnight” is quite representative of the Romantic movement, overtly

bringing in several facets of the theories espoused by William Wordsworth and Coleridge

in Lyrical Ballads (published the same year as “Frost”). The importance of childhood

experience as a form of inspiration is central here, inspiring both the writing of the poem

itself and the speaker’s hopes for his son. Nature is held up as the ideal place to be,

especially for growing boys—to the Romantics, Nature is a better teacher than one could

find in a school. Wordsworth mentioned in his Prelude that he was sorry that Coleridge

had been raised in the city rather than in the country, and that regret is clear in this poem:

“For I was reared / In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim, / And saw nought lovely but

the sky and stars” (51-53) . The city held him prisoner as much as did the “stern

preceptor” (37) at his school. The poem’s imitation of conversational rhythm, lack of

rhyme, and lack of strict stanzaic form all fit with the Romantic ideal of drawing from

ordinary life in form as well as content, and also with Coleridge’s own organic theory,

which stated that a poem should evolve its own form to fit its content rather than having

some standard form thrust upon it. Also typical of Romantic poetry is the cyclical

structure connecting the frost in the first line to the frost at the end, both performing

“secret ministry” (1, 72). The frost found at the beginning and end of the poem bind the

present to the future, just as the film in the center of it binds the present to the past.

Most of all, the poem exemplifies the concept put forth by Wordsworth that poetry

should be “emotion recollected in tranquility.” As evidenced by the opening stanza, the

speaker is in a state of extreme tranquility—everything is still, quiet and calm—

reinforced to the reader by the soothing cadence of the meter. Even the memory of his

school days is placid to the point of somnolence. It is the once-removed memory of

earlier youth that brings out the “wild pleasure” [31-32] , as well as his hope that his son

will enjoy the nature-saturated childhood that was taken from the speaker himself.