‘Frost at Midnight’

‘Frost at Midnight’ written by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes the scene of the writer sitting in his cottage as his son sleeps beside him on a winter night, reminiscing of childhood that of his own and of his child. The stanzas are written through the first person narrative, providing a scene of intimacy to the reader. This intimate scene if further developed through the poets’ use of tone, repetition and imagery to name to name but a few of the poetic techniques evident in the poem. Through these devices the reader is transported through a world of solitude, melancholy and inspiration.

The poem is written in four stanzas, each conveying the effect of nature and childhood through its blank verse. As a conversational poem, a form popular in the Romantic period, Coleridge reflects upon the serenity of nature and his surroundings. ‘Frost at Midnight’ has been written in blank verse, lines of unmetered iambic pentameter. The narrative of the poem begins with the speaker sitting in his cottage with the sleeping child beside him. The reference to the ‘Frost and its secret ministry’ may be subtle but is a powerful force of nature.

Along with the personification of the capital F in ‘Frost’ an ominous mood is created which is only enhanced by the ‘owlets cry’. The stanza continues describing the nights calmness, ‘so calm that that it disturbs and vexes with its strange and extreme silentness’, the consonance ‘s’ sounds through out these lines is effective as its brings the quietness of the night to the forefront of the poem, a scene of tranquillity. The speakers mind wanders between the ‘Sea, hill and wood’ (10) and the nearby village with the ‘numberless goings-on of life’ (12) are mild distractions to the speaker.

Coleridge choice of language draws the reader into the intimate cottage scene. The solitude of the outside is soon transferred though the interior of the cottage as the poet becomes entranced with the dwindling fire flame. The film on the fire symbolises the motion inherent in nature, with the repetition of Coleridge’s use of ‘fluttered’ or ‘flutters’, it appears the erratic motion stimulates the poets imagination. Words such as ‘dim sympathies’ (18), ‘echo’ and ‘mirror’ (23) help establish the speaker in a state of peaceful harmony with nature through out this stanza.

Enjambment can be detected as the first stanza leads into the second stanza, (24). This technique emphasises the connection of the film and the memory it clearly evokes in Coleridge, while separating the present from the time being recollected. It could be suggested that Coleridge wanted a clear separation of the past from the present, wishing to recall the past in the calmness of the present therefore passing on the lessons from his own unhappy childhood to his infant son. From the ‘hush of nature’ (17) the tone of the second stanza changes as Coleridge recalls his own childhood.

The repetition ‘how oft’ (24 and 26) emphasises how the speaker is recollecting a habitual experience, rather than a one time event in his childhood. . Once again, the ‘fluttering’, (26) triggers Coleridge’s memory to recall his ‘sweet birth-place’ enabling the poet to recollect his childhood hometown. Personification allows the speakers pining of his childhood home become apparent as his ‘heart leaped up’, reinforcing the memories that haunt Coleridge in his adulthood. As mentioned previously, the tone of the second stanza changes from the tranquillity that was evident in the first.

Words such as ‘brooded’ (36), ‘stern’ (37) and ‘hasty’ (40) highlight the unhappiness that Coleridge portrays. The allusion of the ‘fluttering stranger’ (26) allows the speaker to describe the fluttering flame which in turn relates to an old superstition that a flickering flame suggests a visit from a stranger. This visit from a stranger is picked up once again towards the end of the second stanza, as Coleridge ‘hoped to see the stranger’s face’ (41), signifying once again how the speaker wished to return home, hoping the stranger will be a much loved family member.

Coleridge returns his infant son in the third stanza and the wonders he has yet to experience. The deep fatherly love Coleridge feels for his son is clear through his reference ‘Dear Babe’ (44), the breathing of the child has brought the speaker back to the present and the future of his son. Coleridge rejoices in the knowledge that his son. ‘shalt learn far other lore, And in far other scenes’, (50, 51).

A deep contrast to Coleridge’s’ upbringing ‘in the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim’, (52) a reference to his childhood at Christ’s Hospital School in London where he was sent at the age of nine after this death of his father, (Owens and Johnson, 1998, page 437). The theme of nature is brought to the forefront of this stanza, as the speaker uses the powerful simile that his son ‘shalt wander like a breeze’, showing the freedom that the child will experience in the country. Throughout the stanza the reader is aware that Coleridge bitterly regrets the influence of nature on his childhood.

The imagery is enhanced as the speaker describes the natural world, ‘lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds which image in their bulk both lakes and shores’, (55 – 57). This image shows the true magnificence of the natural world, and is not only evident in the physical mountains or lakes but also mirrored in the sky and clouds above. The tone of tranquillity has clearly returned to the poem. Coleridge closes the third stanza referencing God as the ‘Great universal Teacher’, (63) who ‘shall mould thy spirit’, (63-64) of the poets son.

Through these closing lines the speaker relates children, in particular his son, and the natural world to God demonstrating how seeing, hearing and experiencing nature will allow his infant son to be closer to God and therefore understand him better. A key principle to Coleridge was the God- like quality that was a fundamental element in all human beings, in this instances his son, (Allen, 1996, page 75). With this the final stanza at ‘Frost at Midnight’, Coleridge gives his blessing to his son hoping the infant will appreciate nature.

The relationship between the child, natural world and God are depicted that ‘all seasons shall be sweet to thee’ (65), as long as this relationship continues. The awe inspiring beauty of nature is personified ‘whether the summer cloth the general earth with greenness’, (66-67) letting the vividness life become the focal point. As well as the greenness of the grass, the reader is also invited to see the beauty within the wildlife of the bird as it sings ‘betwixt’, an image that mimics the sounds a bird would make, a technique known as onomatopoeia.

The repetition of ‘secret ministry of frost’ (72) provides the poem with a full cycle of events. ‘Frost at Midnight has gone full circle from past, present and finally the future of childhood, reflecting the unity of nature that is the inspiration of the poem. The frost ties the present to the future which in turn reflect the infant and his education, while the film in stanza two ties the present to the past, reflecting the speaker and his education. The poetic devices within ‘Frost at Midnight’ provide a distinct insight into the central themes that influenced the writers of the Romantic period.

Childhood is one of the most important elements to this poem, it is not only the key theme but Coleridge’s son is also the inspiration to the poem. The natural world is believed to be the ideal place, as nature is the most important education in the world. It could be argues that a pure connection between childhood and nature are created in ‘Frost at Midnight’, a time when innocence is links both of these themes to god, leaving the reader in a state of reflection.

Through Coleridge’s upbringing in London, the reader is able to detect the solitary that he experienced without the influence of nature, a precious education that the poet himself was deprived and now wishes for his son. Coleridge recognises that there is a city outside the calmness of the cottage, that his son will eventually discover when he reaches adulthood. However, Coleridge hopes the access to nature will help his son develop a connection with the natural world that surrounds him and God.