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A Frost at Midnight - Samuel Taylor Coleridge. English Literature

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s, A Frost at Midnight [1798], is a conversation poem whereby the mind of the poet and his or her environment are brought into intimate contact. The rhythm of the poem is subtle and unforced carefully suggesting real rhythms of speech. Coleridge has achieved this effect by using blank verse, few full rhymes and few end stops. It is a deeply personal poem to his sleeping infant son. The setting is in a cottage at midnight. The outside environment of “sea, hill and wood”, the frost and the “low burnt” fire in front of him, combine to lead him first to reflect on how thoughts arise and then to a particular reminiscence of his school days. He initially repeats “sea, hill and wood” in order to draw our attention to the surrounding countryside area. The tone is tender and quietly meditative, the gentle quality being achieved by the poem’s lack of self-conscious devices. The poem’s speaker reflects on the silence of the night as he watches over his child in slumber. The poem is initially idyllic and domestic but there is so much contained within.

It is sometimes difficult to understand a poem without understanding the cultural setting, the philosophical stance or the overall psychological mind-set of the poet. Although ‘Frost at Midnight’ is domestic and idyllic on one level, it is also part of the idea that the path of mystery lies inwards, in which feeling, sensibility, imagination and experience play freely on his faculty of cognition so that the poem becomes almost a living organism embodying the Spinozaean idea of moving from ‘seeing through a glass darkly’ to sub specie aerternitatis, which exerted great influence over artists and poets of the Romantic period. To paraphrase Graham Hough [The Romantic Poets], the poem is also an experiment in associationism [ David Hartley ] and what Coleridge termed ‘secondary imagination’ in addition to a special handling of language embracing Coleridge’s belief in Pantheism and Oneness.

The evocative phrase ‘the secret ministry of frost’ initially conjures images of freezing temperatures contrasted with security, cosiness, warmth and self-indulgent thought as he sits by the fire in the cottage.  But the phrase is also a personification and simultaneously conveys the image of a mystic agency of the poet’s secondary imaginative journey. Coleridge is in effect, pursuing a controlled association of ideas under the guidance of a dominating emotion stimulated by visual images and this is imperative to our understanding. The poem is contrived but it is constructed in such a way that we are under the illusion that it is not. It is however, wonderfully lacking in self-consciousness in its end result.

In ‘dim sympathy’ with the wintry night’s silence [the wintry night also being a personification], Coleridge reflects on his childhood spent ‘in the great city’ pent ‘mid cloisters dim’, and resolves that this will not be the case for his son. Coleridge was not particularly unhappy as a child because he juxtaposes poverty [the church bells being the ‘poor man’s music’] with ‘my sweet birthplace’ but he disliked the oppressive city environment feeling terribly confined by it; the ‘bars’ on the fire-grate suggesting the bars of a prison perhaps. Coleridge contrasts this with what he would like for his own child: [‘By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags/ Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds’]. He wants his child to experience everything that is positive in life, for him to wonder and wander, for him to be fused with nature and soul so that he can develop to his fullest potential both intellectually and spiritually. Moreover, by applying associationism , Coleridge probably believed that he could see the totality of what humankind could or should be able to achieve with careful philosophical nurturing and the right environmental circumstances.

It is the poet's way of searching for an ideal way of being - of reaching the fullest human potential and spiritual affinity - imminently and transcendetally. In addition to drawing our attention to the surrounding countryside, 'sea, hill and wood' represent the opening upwards and outwards of boundless possibilities for his son. The countryside contrasts with the claustrophobic images of 'cloisters dim' and city. In cities, you can only look upwards through the narrow spaces between the skyscrapers but in the countryside, the sky can be observed panoramically, enabling the poet to ponder infinity in the beauty of the night sky.


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