Frost at Midnight Frost at Midnight, which many regard as the most successful of the Conversation Poems, was written

in February 1798, when Coleridge was still working on The Ancient Mariner. Surprisingly, despite its air of mystery and the supernatural, the poem was not published in Lyrical Ballads, nor is there any evidence that it was ever considered for inclusion in that volume. In mid-September 1798, shortly before he left for Germany, Coleridge was in London and arranged that it should be published in a quarto pamphlet along with two other of his poems; the pamphlet, under the imprint of the London bookseller Joseph Johnson, appeared later that year with the title Fears in Solitude, Written in 1798, during the Alarum of an Invasion. To which are added, France, an Ode; and Frost at Midnight. After he returned from Germany, Coleridge suggested to Southey in December 1799 that, if "Johnson should mean to do nothing more" (CL, i 550) with the three poems, they might find a place in Southey's projected Annual Anthology. Southey was interested, and Coleridge wrote back five days later: "I will speak to Johnson about the Fears in Solitude -- if he give them up, they are your's" (CL, i 552). Johnson, however, would not relinquish his right to the poems, and in February 1800 Coleridge told Southey that "The fears in Solitude, I fear, is not my Property -- & I have no encouragement to think, it will be given [39] up" (CL, i 573). The three poems were later published together in the Poetical Register for 1808-9, and also appeared in 1812 as a separate publication, under the imprint of Law and Gilbert. Frost at Midnight was finally separated from its two "companion" pieces in Coleridge's Sibylline Leaves (1817), where it was included with a number of the other Conversation Poems in a section entitled "Meditative Poems in Blank Verse". Thereafter similarly grouped, it was published in all the lifetime editions -- 1828, 1829 and 1834 -- of Coleridge's poetry. Like most of Coleridge's poems Frost at Midnight underwent substantial revision over a number of years. While there are a number of minor variants, the major changes may be limited to two. First, the quarto edition of 1798 had included a six-line coda (italicised below), so that the original ending of the poem read, Or whether the secret ministery of cold Shall hang them up in silent icicles, Quietly shining to the quiet moon, Like those, my babe! which ere tomorrow's warmth Have capp'd their sharp keen points with pendulous drops, Will catch thine eye, and with their novelty Suspend thy little soul; then make thee shout, And stretch and flutter from thy mother's arms As thou wouldst fly for very eagerness.

Although the primary "source" of Frost at Midnight is undoubtedly Coleridge's own experience on a cold February night in 1798. That loves not to behold a lifeless thing. which make even more explicit the opposition between "common sense" responses to phenomena and such fanciful self-projection ("these wild reliques of our childish Thought"). sometimes with deep faith / And sometimes with fantastic playfulness". [40] when the poem was published in the Poetical Register.2 The second major revision centres on lines 19-25 of the final version. the same difficulties remain: To which the living spirit in our frame. Later.1 In any event. for they were omitted in all later editions because (as Coleridge said in a marginal note) they "destroy the rondo. where the film on the grate is a "companionable form" because it echoes the mind's own mood. In Sibylline Leaves and in the 1828 version of the poem. this same section was expanded to fourteen lines. Transfuses its own pleasures. although the fourteen lines are compressed into fewer lines. no allowance is made for a reciprocal interchange of action from without and from within in the act of perception. i 552). its own will.When Coleridge offered the poem to Southey in 1799. as well. This section. and return upon itself of the Poem". while with poring eye I gazed. simply imposes fanciful meanings and associations on external phenomena. churches. finally. the 1798 lines stress the activity of "the self-watching subtilizing mind" that anthropomorphises lifeless external things by transfusing into them the mind's "own delights. tow'rs. rather than participating imaginatively in the unity of all life. It was not. in which the "idling Spirit" finds an "Echo or mirror seeking of itself" in the objects of its contemplation. in the 1798 quarto edition. until the revisions for the 1829 edition that the passage assumed its final form. Trees. contains ten lines: unlike the final version. . and strange visages express'd In the red cinders.3 The conceptual (or philosophic) problem with both these versions is that creative perception is distrusted and. it is easy to assent to Humphry House's judgement that the decision to drop these lines "was one of the best artistic decisions Coleridge ever made". Fancy dominates Imagination: the mind. / Its own volition. Perhaps even that early he had these six concluding lines in mind. myself creating what I saw. he noted that it could stand "a little Trimming" (CL.4 Moreover. it is impossible (as Humphry House has pointed out) not to believe that the poet had a passage from William Cowper's The Task in mind as he wrote: Me oft has fancy ludicrous and wild Sooth'd with a waking dream of houses.

absorb'd and lost. and foreboding in the view Of superstition prophesying still Though still deceived. . Meanwhile the face [41] Conceals the mood lethargic with a mask Of deep deliberation. desultory and unshaped . till at length the freezing blast That sweeps the bolted shutter. Indeed. and the rough wind. (The Task. 1785 edn) While the parallels in situation and imagery. . endear The silence and the warmth enjoy'd within.). "pendulous". restores me to myself. together with a number of verbal echoes ("films". 'Tis thus the understanding takes repose In indolent vacuity of thought. summons home The recollected powers. iv 286-310. I lose an hour At evening. and . and snapping short The glassy threads with which the fancy weaves Her brittle toys. But in Coleridge's poem there is no question of deceit or of a lost hour. strictly. his thought acquires serious content as it moves. the insignificance. the contrasts are much more remarkable than the similarities. "toys". Coleridge has utterly transformed the passage in adapting it to suit his own purpose. and the verse in which he gives expression to this is. .Nor less amused have I quiescent watch'd The sooty films that play upon the bars Pendulous. Thus oft reclin'd at ease. of his mood and the quite false appearance of "deep deliberation" which he gives to others. And sleeps and is refresh'd. The case is well put by House: Cowper emphasises the utter indolence. How calm is my recess. would seem to preclude the possibility of coincidence. as the man Were task'd to his full strength. and how the frost Raging abroad. some stranger's near approach. etc.

by memory. in imagination. myself creating what I saw".though this is to speculate -. which suits Abstruser musings: save that at my side My cradled infant slumbers peacefully. Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame . not only in the characteristic "rondo" device which takes him from his Stowey cottage into strange seas of thought and then returns him to the cottage again. Unhelped by any wind. to a vicarious participation in natural beauty through the imagined responses of his infant son. and wood. to a visionary future which both recaptures the past and returns him to his present situation. His restless mood. and wood. As in This Lime-Tree Bower. which is out of tune with the universal "hush of nature" around him. the organisation. With all the numberless goings-on of life. This populous village! Sea. is its tightly knit organisation.the man is really tasked to his full strength. in which the poet "gazed. the poet begins with a sense of his own separation and [42] alienation from the world around him but then rises. Have left me to that solitude. 'Tis calm indeed! so calm. as egotism yields to altruism.5 It may be added -. which contrasts sharply in its silent operation with the poet's vexed desire to know and explain such mysteries. into the past and then projected forward. that it disturbs And vexes meditation with its strange And extreme silentless. Sea. finds (or seems to find) an analogue in the fluttering film playing over the grate in the fireplace: The Frost performs its secret ministry. The poet's spiritual growth is developed. The first movement (lines 1-23) opens with the frost's "secret ministry". What makes Frost at Midnight an artistic success. What makes Frost at Midnight an achieved artistic whole is the design. in the movement of the thought. all at rest.and hark. was too much present to him and that Coleridge (perhaps without ever being consciously aware of it) found it hard to shake himself free of the influence of Cowper's projectionist view of mental activity. again! loud as before.that Coleridge's difficulties with revising lines 19-25 may stem ultimately from the fact that Cowper's fanciful vision. but also in an intricately structured temporal sequence in three movements: from his present situation he is led. as House points out. and hill. hill. The inmates of my cottage. The owlet's cry Came loud -.

and wood. then one must listen with the heart as well as with the ear. and understand this mysterious language of silence. the owlet's cry. making "a toy of Thought". even when repeated like an incantation. The "numberless goings-on of life" are inaccessible to him: "Inaudible as dreams!" His Stowey parlour (a symbol. indeed. however. / This populous village!" -. the sole unquiet thing.Lies on my low-burnt fire. in dissonant counterpoint to the unity of life around him. If one is to attune oneself with this activity.the frost performing its secret ministry. Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit By its own moods interprets. he looks about for something to which he can relate and finds (he thinks) a "companionable form" in the film fluttering on the grate -. Click the images for enlarged photographs showing the exterior and interior of Coleridge's cottage in Lime Street. they establish a tension between the serenity of nature and the agitation of the poet -. On the one hand. like the roaring dell in This Lime-Tree Bower. He attempts to define the calm by cataloguing its components -"Sea. and quivers not. But the film. every where Echo or mirror seeking of itself. is an ambivalent symbol: it is a companionable reflection of the poet's mood and mind. Still flutters there. but this "extreme silentness" is somewhat illusory. [43] These lines develop a distinction between solitude and isolation. On the other hand. Only that film. there is the poet's oppressive sense of isolation and the increasingly frantic attempts of his probing intelligence to penetrate the mysterious veil of silence. the "numberless goings-on of life" throughout the village and the world beyond. exterior view . Nether Stowey STC's cottage."the sole unquiet thing".and the gap between them widens as the passage progresses. He discovers that the "solitude" to which he has been left is not a solace. the baby's peaceful breathing.but enumeration. And makes a toy of Thought. its motion in this hush of nature Gives it dim sympathies with me who live. there is the calm of external nature. for it is full of activity -. Unable to communicate with that world. hill. Making it a companionable form. Methinks. an analogue of his own restlessness. which fluttered on the grate. of the enclosed world of self) becomes a prison in which he is cut off from the life of the larger world. like Poole's lime-tree bower in an earlier poem. Nether Stowey. it is disquieting and produces an opposite effect in him: "it disturbs / And vexes meditation with its strange / And extreme silentness". but at the same time its "puny flaps and freaks" mock his efforts at intellectual activity. does not bring revelation.

at school. all the hot Fair-day. rang From morn to evening. and the old church-tower. for the image of the fluttering film (and the popular superstition attached to it6) provides a bridge from actual to remembered experience: But O! how oft. as Frederick Garber says. and still my heart leaped up.STC's cottage. So sweetly. Townsman. that they stirred and haunted me With a wild pleasure. Whose bells. The transition is a smooth one. Lulled me to sleep. interior view In the second movement (lines 23-43) intellection gives way to rêverie and the present yields place to the past. To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft With unclosed lids. and sleep prolonged my dreams! And so I brooded all the following morn. For still I hoped to see the stranger's face. the poor man's only music. Nether Stowey. have I gazed upon the bars. Awed by the stern preceptor's face. the poet "has moved from being a spectator of his current working consciousness into staring at himself as a child. or sister more beloved. till the soothing things. with most believing mind. mine eye Fixed with mock study on my swimming book: Save if the door half opened. falling on mine ear Most like articulate sounds of things to come! So gazed I. and I snatched A hasty glance. or aunt. already had I dreamt Of my sweet birthplace. My play-mate when we both were clothed alike! In these lines. I dreamt. and what he was doing then . [44] Presageful. How oft.

. and all things in himself". In the third section (lines 44-74) the contrapuntal exploration of self is further developed in the contrast between the poet's past when he was "pent 'mid cloisters dim" at Christ's Hospital and his son's projected education amid the beauties of the natural world.7 In fact. then. Whose gentle breathings. is pivotal. the second movement has a double aspect. that sleepest cradled by my side. the joyous Ottery memories -. . it is both a recapitulation and an anticipation. with its overlaid presentation of two former [45] selves. On the other hand.dominated by the haunting music of the church-bells -.8 This second section. And think that thou shalt learn far other lore. In this section two biographical memories are superimposed on one another in a kind of poetic double-exposure: the poet relives those times at Christ's Hospital when. in the door "half opened" by reflection and reminiscence. returns Coleridge momentarily to the present and then sends him forward to an altruistic benediction in which he transcends self by rediscovering it in and through his son: Dear Babe. The infant's gentle breathing. unhappy and alone. who reveals "Himself in all. . for the poet's analogising consciousness is more open and responsive to memory than to his present circumstances and search for companionable forms in the world outside himself. which interrupts the "abstruser musings" and train of associated memories. playing spectator to an earlier acting self . the oppressive sense of solitude. explored in the opening movement. Fill up the intersperséd vacancies And momentary pauses of the thought! My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart With tender gladness. On the one hand. as it were. The mind which had sought for a likeness outside of itself goes one step further and finds one within itself as well". thus to look at thee. and he recalls how the vision of his "sweet birth-place" had lingered with him during school-hours and superstitiously prompted him to hope that the schoolroom door would open to reveal this glad past in the shape of an Ottery townsman or his aunt or his beloved sister Anne (who had died in March 1791 during his last term at Christ's Hospital). the image of the lonely dreaming schoolboy imprisoned beneath the stern preceptor's gaze gathers up and refocuses the restless alienation. and the "presageful" stranger does in fact arrive when the poet glances up from himself to see his infant son standing. the movement inward is an extremely important one. heard in this deep calm.look forward to the third section of the poem and the "natural" education that his son will experience under the benevolent preceptorship of the "Great universal Teacher".as a child is exactly what he is doing now as an adult. the fluttering stranger had reminded him of his happy childhood in Ottery St Mary. And in far other scenes! For I was reared . The door that opens on the past leads also to the future. Janus-like. however.

But thou. and beneath the clouds. Whether the summer clothe the general earth With greenness. the blowing wind and the secret ministry of frost. pent 'mid cloisters dim. while the nigh thatch Smokes in the sun-thaw. Great universal Teacher! he shall mould Thy spirit. they are now.9 whether the eavesdrops fall Heard only in the trances of the blast. Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible [46] Of that eternal language. as the poet listens with his heart as well as with his ear. who from eternity doth teach Himself in all. which thy God Utters. Quietly shining to the quiet Moon. And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars. and by giving make it ask. are all parts and portions of one wondrous whole. my babe! shalt wander like a breeze By lakes and sandy shores. the intelligible sounds of one eternal . Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee. beneath the crags Of ancient mountain.In the great city. nor is it inaccessible to him. and all things in himself. The "deep calm" around him that had originally pressured him into perplexity is no longer vexing or alien. Sound and silence coexist symbiotically: the water-drops heard falling from the eaves or being hung in silent icicles. Or if the secret ministry of frost Shall hang them up in silent icicles. or the redbreast sit and sing Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch Of mossy apple-tree.

but by another poet. The lovely in life is the familiar. toying with a companionable form. the balanced reconciliation. "The meaning of the poem". "is in all that has accrued since the original vision. Frost at Midnight is the record of an epiphany.10 The eavesdrops heard "in the trances of the blast" are analogous to the baby's gentle breathings. of the familiar and the strange -.or [47] self-revelation -.a mystery that is perhaps best described. in a little quatrain that Coleridge himself might have written: That shining moon -. And only the lovelier for continuing strange. then. for (as in Tintern Abbey) "the revelation is not a formulated idea that dispels mystery.in Max Schulz's words -. In this instance at least. the revelation -. mystery". It dramatises a movement "from the willful and superstitious solipsism of a depressed sensibility.his own and that of his son.13 At the heart of this mystery lies the blending. Understanding. a more inclusive. insight and reconciliation have come to him through childhood -. not by a literary critic. in the gain in perception.14 . beyond the fear of change. that is. based not on superstition but on substantial belief".11 sings now in full-throated ease. . The poem begins and ends with the "secret ministry" of frost -. And. having carried "the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood". . at the transitional moment between the end of the old and the beginning of a new day.watched by that one faint star: Sure now am I.a mystery which is explored but never explained. But the gain is rather in the intensity of understanding than in what is understood".language. to the apprehension of a regenerate companionship.) It is a religious poem which describes the attainment through the visible world of an insight into the invisible world beyond. the child truly is the father of the man. as Robert Langbaum has succinctly expressed it. as his thought turns from himself to his sleeping child.occurs at midnight. are identical". he realises -.that "the beneficent and awesome processes of life taking place outside in nature and inside the cottage . but a perception that advances in intensity to a deeper and wider. and the robin imagined as pouring out its soul on the snow-tufted boughs of the apple-tree has its counterpart in the poet who.12 (Significantly.

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