Frost at Midnight by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
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.

But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
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! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: 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.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
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 night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-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.

Explanation

Lines 1-7

The frost is performing its function invisibly. No wind is blowing to help the frost.The loud cry of the owlet is being heard at intervals. All the inmates of my cottage are asleep. I am quite awake except that my little child is sleeping peacefully in a cradle by my side. This solitude is favourable to philosophical thinking.

Lines 8-15

There is perfect silence all around. Indeed, this silence is so complete as to disturb one’s thinking. ‘Sea, hill, wood, this village with its all inhabitants and its numerous activities and occupations—these are all silent like dreams. The thin blue flame of the fire, which has burnt itself low, is quite motionless. The only active thing here is that film which has been quivering on the grate and which is still quivering there.

Lines 16-23

The movement of that film, in the midst of the complete silence all around,connects with me because I, too, am awake. There is a vague bond between me and the film because both of us are active or awake. ‘Thus the film is a sort of companion for me. In this mood of idle thinking I interpret the irregular movements or fluttering of the film according to my own moods or whims. Thus my mind seeks everywhere a reflection of itself and. plays with ideas as one plays with a toy.

Lines 24-35

When I was a student I, often used to look at the bars of the grate because I believed that if I could see the fluttering film there, it would indicate the arrival of some friend or relative the next morning. Every time at the thought or sight of that film I used to see in my imagination my sweet native-place with its old church-tower whose bells rang from morning to evening on the hot fair-day. These church bells provided to the poor villagers the only music that they could ever hear. As for me, the sweet music of the church bells aroused a passionate joy in me and seemed to be a prophecy of future events. Thus, as a boy at schoo1, used to look fixedly at the film and imagine sweet things till I fell asleep, and in my sleep I saw equally sweet dreams.

Lines 36-43

The next morning, on waking up, my mind would still be occupied with thoughts of home and some relative who might come to see me. Being afraid of the stern teacher,I used to keep looking at the book as I sat in the class-room, pretending to read; but my ‘mind used to be elsewhere. The words in the book used to be only dimly visible to me through my tears. Every time somebody half opened the door of the class-room, I looked hastily, and wit1 a hopeful heart, for some visitor – a townsman, an aunt or a beloved sister, a play-mate of my younger days, when both she and I were clothed in similar garments.

Lines 44-53

My dear child, sleeping in the cradle by my side! the sound of your gentle breathing is clearly audible to me in this deep silence, and it fills up the short intervals between the various thoughts that are coming into my mind. You are a lovely little child and as I look at you, my heart is filled with deep love and joy. Your education and your bringing will be of a different kind from mine. I was brought up in the great city of London in the midst of congested houses and buildings where I could see nothing beautiful except the sky and stars.

Lines 54-64

But you, my little son, will wander freely like the wind along lakes and sandy sea-shores, under the immemorial rocks and mountains, and below the clouds which in their immensity represent or symbolize the vast lakes, oceans and mountains. In this way you will see the beautiful objects of Nature and hear the meaningful sounds of the everlasting language of God who from the beginning of the universe has always revealed himself in all objects of Nature. Nature is the supreme teacher of mankind and will give the right shape to your character and personality, and you will be so influenced by Nature as to seek her company still more.

Lines 65-74

(As a result of your constant contact with Nature) you will love all seasons. You will love the summer when the earth is all covered with green verdure. And you will love the winter when the red-breast sits and sings among the snow-flakes on the leafless branches of an apple-tree all overgrown with moss, while vapours are seen rising from the roof of’ a nearby cottage when the snow on it is melting in the heat of the sun; You all also love the time when rain-drops fall from the eaves and their sound is heard only in the silent intervals and pauses of the storm, and when, as a result off rost invisibly forming itself, the water-drops become frozen and are seen shining silently in the light of the silent moon.

Summary and Analysis

Background

The poem was written in the year 1798 at Stowey and printed with other poem Fear in Solitude and France: An Ode. The poem is written in a contemplative mood. The writer’s thoughts wander back to his own past or are projected forward ‘to the future of his little son, Hartley Coleridge. The stillness of the night is maintained throughout the poem and nowhere does any violence of thought disturb the quiet of the night or the harmony of the poet’s mind.The poem reflects Wordsworthian influence in the sense that it reveals his belief in Pantheism.

Critical Summary

The poem is a picture of an evening spent by the poet by his fireside on a frosty night.The first stanza builds up the atmosphere of the night when complete silence prevails, broken only by the occasional cries of the owlet. The frost is settling invisibly and there is no breeze.The poet sits alone by the side of his little son sleeping peacefully in a cradle. As he was sitting beside the fire, at the low-burnt fire, he sees a fluttering film on the ‘grill’. He feels that there is a bond of sympathy between him and that film. He interprets the movements and fluttering of the film according to his own changing thoughts and fancies. The poet is here indirectly expressing the belief that outward objects merely reflect or mirror our own thoughts and moods.

The sight of the fluttering film reminds the poet of his school-days and he becomes reminiscent. He recalls that whenever at school he saw that film on the grate, he superstitiously believed that a friend or a relative would come to see him from his native place. The thought of his native village with the bells ringing all the hot fair-day was sweet to him. He also remembers that, when he sat in the class-room pretending to study his book, he was all the time expecting some dear relative or friend to arrive. There is an element of autobiographical sense which gives us a glimpse into the school-life of Coleridge at Christ’s Hospital where he had been a student.

In the next passage the poet addresses his son, Hartley Coleridge. He makes a plan about his baby’s future. While he was himself brought up in the suffocating atmosphere of London, he would put this baby into close contact with Nature. The baby will wander like a breeze in natural surroundings and will see the lovely objects, as well as hear the sweet sounds,of Nature. The boy will grow up under the benevolent and educative influence of Nature. He will learn a lot in the company of Nature. His believes that God reveals himself through Nature and thus God will mould the character of the baby through the medium of Nature. These lines contain the belief that is called pantheism, namely the belief that the Divine Spirit pervades all objects of Nature and that God reveals himself through Nature. These lines were written under the influence of Wordsworth.

The poem ends with striking pictures of summer and winter. The child will grow to love all seasons — whether summer covers the whole earth with green grass and green plants, or the redbreast sits on an apple-tree singing its wintry song in the midst of snow-flakes, or the drops of water falling from the roofs of cottages freeze into icicles shining quietly in the light of the quiet moon.

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