Frost at Midnight is one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most beautiful poems, It belongs to the genre he called “conversation poems” (in the subtitle to “The Nightingale”)—that is, poems in the style of a person talking to a listener, perhaps himself, but even so following the explanatory impulses and digressions of social speech. (Coleridge derived the mode from the 17th-century poet George Herbert.) Coleridge, we know, was a great talker (as the essayist William Hazlitt recounted in “My First Acquaintance with Poets”), and here we see him talking seriously to himself and perhaps just as seriously to his child.
In the poem, Coleridge is up late on a cold but still winter night in the cottage that he shares with his young son Hartley Coleridge. The rest of the family is asleep, and he considers the beautiful frost that settles on the house and seems to increase the sense of calm and peace within it. Its secret ministry is the way it bestows this calm without any sort of personification, any sense of obligation conferred at all.
Hartley is asleep at his side as Coleridge meditates, adding to the sense of calm, but the calm itself is oddly vexing. Meditation has no object; the extreme stillness of the night prevents Coleridge from having to think of any particular thing, so it takes itself as the object. This image of meditation vexed by calm is one that William Wordsworth will borrow for the opening of The Prelude, where the “correspondent breeze” within the poet that responds to the gentle breeze of the outside world becomes “a tempest, a redundant energy / Vexing its own creation” (1850 version, ll. 37–38). Stillness becomes paradoxically redundant, a characteristic romantic theme that has to do with the strange doubling of self-reflection. Subjectivity meditates on its own strange, uncharacterizable perspective, and that meditation on the void of selfhood seeks to understand the subjectivity it thereby creates. (This has often been aptly compared to the simile of an eye trying to see itself seeing, and not only what it sees.) Thought is related to the world it thinks about through an undefinable subjectivity, half-creating the world it perceives, as Wordsworth would put it in “Tintern Abbey.” That poem is highly influenced by “Frost at Midnight,” and its version of this self-sustained vexation appears at the start when he describes how the “wild secluded scene” that he sees gives rise to “thoughts of more deep seclusion” (“Tintern Abbey,” ll. 6–7). In both Coleridge and Wordsworth, this vexation could become wild indeed, although never perhaps as ungovernably as in the poetry of John Clare, most observant of the natural world among the romantics, who called this aspect of subjectivity the experience of being the “self-consumer” of his own woes.
Indeed, it should be noted that this self-reflective meditation is finally absorbed into Coleridge’s thinking about the form of the poem itself. In its original version, Coleridge imagined “tomorrow’s warmth” when the whole house would be awake again and Hartley would fly to his mother’s arms. That ending is beautiful, but not so beautiful as its omission, which allows the poem to end with a return to the vision of frost that sets him thinking about it and about how Hartley will think about it. Coleridge explained the deletion of the last lines in one of his famous marginalia: “The six last lines I omit because they destroy the rondo, and return upon itself of the poem. Poems of this kind of length ought to lie coiled with its tail round its head.” True though, as a poetic principle the omission of the last six lines allows us to understand another feature of the poem, the extent to which it shifts, as all poetry (no matter how spontaneous) must shift, from expression to the reminder of a past attitude or thought. Hartley grows, and “Frost at Midnight” simultaneously becomes the place where Coleridge remembers him as the beautiful babe in the stillness of the evening. Futurity is there still in the extraordinary blessing that ends the poem, but not chronology—not the next day and the day after that, but the suspended and privileged time in which the whole blessed future may be felt in the instant.
That is to say that the afterlife of the poem is one in which it becomes itself an object of meditation, meditation expressed in the way Coleridge further abstracts, idealizes, and aims at the essence of the remembered scene. That kind of abstraction, idealization, and essentializing is what the poem is about anyway, so this is another dimension in which the poem lies coiled with its tail round its head: It becomes a way for the poet to remember it and to remember what he felt about the poem itself as he wrote it, not only when writing it but by writing it. And this is the subject of the poem, which is characteristic of the deep and subtle ways of thinking about the past that Wordsworth and Coleridge were experimenting with when they composed Lyrical Ballads (1798).
The stillness is such that even the flame in the grate does not move, but there is something that does (like the last red leaf dancing on the treetop in Christabel), the stranger or film of not-quite consumed material that he sees fluttering there despite the otherwise extreme stillness. (Convection currents caused by the fire heating the air are what make the film flutter.) The 18th-century poet William Cowper, in The Task, which Coleridge is thinking about in this poem, also describes the “sooty films that play upon the bars” (book 1, l. 292), but he relates them to a somewhat more anxious superstition than Coleridge does. Cowper describes them as forecasting the arrival of an unknown, perhaps dangerous, person, but Coleridge thinks the stranger a “companionable form.” It is a companion to the self-inducing vexation he himself feels, and as such a form it can become a thing whereon to project and therefore calm his oddly serene restlessness. It is a toy in which thought believes itself reflected, interpreted by the mood of the perceiving spirit, but the self-reflexivity we have noticed also works now between mind and world as the film itself makes thought a toy (l. 23)—that is, guides the thought that had projected itself onto the film.
It guides Coleridge’s thought to memory, and so we move from the midnight in which the poem begins to the time during his school days in London when he would watch the film on the grate and daydream about the stranger it was supposed to foretell. In a footnote for the poem, Coleridge understands stranger to mean an “absent friend.” Why is an absent friend called a stranger? Because the friend’s absence is more fundamental than accidental difference in location; the absence is partly about the way that life itself changes and friends become memories. (See, for example, Charles Lamb’s “The Old Familiar Faces” and George Eliot’s “Brother and Sister.”) Now he is at school, but the stranger makes him think of life at home, in his “sweet birthplace,” and of how he used to fall asleep there to the sounds of the church bells. He most wished at school that the stranger would turn out to be his sister Ann (ll. 42–43), his elder by five years, to whom he was extremely close. It is therefore important to know that Ann died of consumption in 1791, and that in remembering her, Coleridge is mourning for her too. She has become a stranger indeed, absent forever.
Note then that from the midnight in which this meditation begins, Coleridge recalls another time (his school days) when he longed for a still earlier time (his early childhood) that was connected with an earlier time yet (the place of his birth), and where he would be lulled into dreams still further removed from the present. All these different moments can be seen as made discontinuous by “Frost at Midnight” or antithetically as being brought into perfect continuity. For if the memory of any moment in life is a memory of what one was remembering at that moment, then memory is the center of human experience and not a sign of being separated from it. At midnight Coleridge is remembering his memories, and so the present, too, is part of the experience of memory.
But who is the stranger now that the stranger on the grate portends? In some sense it is Hartley, the sleeping babe, having the dreams that Coleridge used to have when he fell asleep in his sweet birthplace. Coleridge is awake, but he can remember sleep and also experience it with intense vicarious happiness in seeing Hartley there, in the present. Thus, childhood returns as Coleridge shifts his thoughts of the past to thoughts of the present, the beautiful babe lying next to him; and Ann returns, perhaps, in the love that he feels for her in memory and for Hartley in the present. It is in that present that he utters the beautiful blessing for Hartley’s future, a blessing that will allow Hartley to participate from all perspectives in the beautiful continuities of memory that the frost performs as its secret ministry.
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