Frost at Midnight is a poem written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It belongs to a group of poems called Conversational Poems. It has a great autobiographical interest since it refers to the years spent by Coleridge at Christ’s Hospital almost pent “amid cloisters dim’ and to his resolution that his son Hartley will be brought up in entirely different surroundings where he will enjoy greater freedom to move about and appreciate the lovely scenes of nature.
The poem gives a compact expression to Coleridge’s creed of Nature as developed under the influence of Wordsworth. But it also suggests the view of Nature he later came to develop after his estrangement from Wordsworth. The closing lines of this poem are remarkable for the vivid description of changing scenes.
When the poem begins, we find Coleridge in a deeply reflective mood. The inmates of his cottage being all at rest and his baby cradled peacefully by his side, he is virtually alone, and this puts him in a reflective mood. He finds the solitude a little oppressive. His mind is only half-attuned to the influxes of Nature. The beauty of the frost-tracery is also lost upon him. In this dead silence, ‘abstruser musings’ occupy his mind. The intellect is in command, the feeling lies dormant. The poet makes an idle toy of Thought. As Humphry House points out, at this stage the thought intrudes into the poem quite openly and disproportionately. But as he finds some companionship with the puny flaps and freaks of a thin soot-flake on the grate and becomes conscious of the baby sleeping beside him, he gains a kind of reassurance, feels more secure, and we find an exquisite blending of thought and feeling. He gets into a reminiscent mood and gives a mature poetic expression to a whole lot of common human emotions. There is a note of nostalgia in his feeling as he refers to the days he spent at Christ’s Hospital. In those days, whenever he observed the fluttering “stranger’ on the grate, it portended to him the visit of
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!
The sight of his baby fills his heart with a tender gladness and he resolves that
… thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes!
He imagines that his son will be moulded under the healthy formative influence of Nature and will come to love all seasons with their diverse natural beauties equally well. And in the closing lines, he describes these beauties. These lines are some of the finest he ever wrote. Their composition is made possible by the harmony he himself achieves with Nature. We remember that in the beginning he was vexed but the tension gradually relaxes and, towards the close of the poem, he is fully at ease with himself.
In Frost at Midnight, Coleridge expresses a pantheistic view of Nature which he developed under the influence of Wordsworth. He then believed that there was a divine spirit present in all objects of Nature and he placed great trust in its moral and educative influence. It is the kind of belief Wordsworth expresses in poems like Tintern Abbey, Immortality Ode and Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge too wanted Nature to be “both law and impulse’ for his son and to exert a powerful moral influence on him to kindle and restrain’. He felt that God would himself educate his son through the agency of Nature:
… 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.
Coleridge’s attitude towards Nature was, however, greatly changed in the later years. In Dejection: An Ode, for example, he expresses an entirely different view. There he depicts Nature to be cold and lifeless. It is human beings themselves, he says, who invest Nature with any life that they see in it. Their own moods are reflected in the various scenes of Nature:
O Lady ! we receive but what we give
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding-garment, ours her shroud!
Even this view of Nature is hinted at in Frost at Midnight:
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.
Coleridge observed Nature very minutely. He was also capable of giving very vivid descriptions. This gave his poetry a remarkable pictorial quality. In Frost at Midnight, we find this quality reflected in the first few lines where he describes the fluttering film on the grate:
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing ….
The picture of Coleridge as a boy sitting in the classroom, pretending to be studying because of the fear of the teacher, stealing a hasty glance at the door expecting some visitor, tears of helplessness in his eyes, the words of his book swimming before them, is very vivid. But so far as the vividness of description is concerned, nothing can surpass the closing lines of the poem where the poet presents the picture of the earth clothed with greenness in summer and the redbreast singing betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch of a mossy apple tree and of the invisible formation of the frost in winter:
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eve-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.