Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Frost at Midnight”
Romantic-era poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously defined imagination as the human mind’s temporary replication of the divine creation of the world. “The primary Imagination,” he wrote, “I hold to be … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation.” In other words, the human mind’s creative powers—finite as they are—imitate in miniature the divine words that called a world into being. In “Frost at Midnight,” Coleridge meditates on creation by pairing poetic composition with the magical appearance of frost crystals on the windowpane and eaves outside. Coleridge explores how the individual mind mirrors the natural world and shows how patterns repeat at different scales, revealing universal elements underlying landscapes, thought structures, frost crystals, and poetry.
At the beginning of the poem, the speaker sits awake in the dead of night as frost laces the window. Everyone else has gone to bed, and his infant son Hartley sleeps by the low fire. An old English word for frost, rime, survived in rural northern English dialects, and in the late 18th century, around the time Coleridge was writing, it came into use once again—mostly among poets. Because it sounded like rhyme, it provided fodder for symbols and wordplay. Both poetry and frost create complex, interwoven patterns, and both arise in secret, out of mystery. During long winter nights, frost spreads unseen up windows and across the grass. People once explained its glittering, sudden appearance by saying that “Jack Frost”—a rascally fairy tale character said to delight in bringing snow and sleet—had painted intricate white designs while the household slept. In “Frost at Midnight,” Coleridge forges poetic patterns to represent the workings of memory and imagination. As he describes the frost, he poetically mimics its recurring shapes. Looked at closely, frost patterns vary somewhat but repeat the same basic designs, branching up the window, replicating themselves.
The poem begins by evoking a repeated birdcall in the winter silence: “The Frost performs its secret ministry, / Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry / Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.” The syntax enacts the repeated call of the owlet, probably shrieking for food, whose smallness mirrors the baby lying in the cradle. Like the frost, which imitates itself as it spreads, the sleeping boy also embodies the idea of replication; children are, in some ways, replicas of their parents.
Paradoxically, Coleridge acknowledges, however, that repetition often hails and creates change; an element of strangeness enters whatever is re-created. Thus, as the poem progresses, he gladly imagines how his son’s childhood will differ from his own. Coleridge spent his school years in London, “pent ‘mid cloisters dim,” but his child Hartley will grow up in the wild countryside where he can “wander like a breeze / By lakes and sandy shores. …” When Coleridge wrote “Frost at Midnight” in 1798, he was living in a small thatched cottage in Somerset, where he had moved because he wanted to be close to William Wordsworth, with whom he shared a legendary literary collaboration, and to Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, whom he adored.
“Frost at Midnight” is written in blank verse, and the poem’s first metrical variation occurs when Coleridge syntactically enacts repetition: “The owlet’s cry / Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.” The second loud disrupts the iambic meter: “came LOUD | —and HARK, | a-GAIN! | LOUD as | be-FORE.” Later, as Coleridge evokes his son’s coming rural childhood, his language again doubles back on itself:
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: …
Clouds tower like mountains, loom like jagged crags, and spread like wind-ruffled lakes. Just as the clouds replicate the landscape below, the verse reiterates its catalog of geologic features: “lakes and shores / And mountain crags,” although, this time, description condenses into a list.
Equating replication with change is one of many ways Coleridge quietly insists that opposite qualities often inhabit the same space. At the beginning of the poem, Coleridge sits in a silent room where even the fire hovers low and unmoving. He describes a film of ash flapping on the grate, which in folkloric belief was called a “stranger” and was said to foretell the arrival of an unexpected guest:
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. …
This “stranger” unites opposites: it is both the burnt residue of the fire and the harbinger of a new arrival; it is both a remnant and an omen. Coleridge describes the leaping film as “unquiet,” a word of negation that contains quiet and is created from its own opposite. This negative construction echoes the poem’s first lines in which he observes that the frost is “unhelped” by any wind.
Although the appearance of the “stranger” on the grate signals the coming arrival of a guest, seeing it makes Coleridge remember his own childhood when he sat at school watching the “stranger” flapping on the grate and wondering what visitor might arrive:
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!
In the 18th century, both boys and girls wore dresses until they went to school. The last line evokes a time when certain differentiating customs had not yet come into effect, and obvious gender distinctions had not yet emerged. Likewise, his meditative anticipation contains multiple suspended possibilities—the unexpected guest could be anyone. As Coleridge watches the fluttering ash, the imagined stranger remains in the multiplicitous realm of imagination and has not yet crystalized into a singular, real person.
Because the film of ash is the only thing stirring in the hushed house, the poet suggests that the film has “dim sympathies” with him, thus equating his mind with this image of restlessness. Coleridge’s descriptions of stillness imbue it, paradoxically, with turbulence: “Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs / And vexes meditation with its strange / And extreme silentness.” Quietness “disturbs” and “vexes” the poet’s thoughts. Mysteriously tumultuous, the silence invites the poet into a world of mimetic possibilities in which forms are not confined to their own limits. The word extreme derives from a Latin adjective meaning far away or foreign—outside the boundaries of a given territory. This “extreme” silence dissolves the boundaries of the self and draws the poet toward something distant. In this case, the distance is temporal; watching the “stranger,” the poet recalls old memories and also vividly imagines his son’s future. In the imagination, multiple time frames coexist at once; time is no longer simply a linear progression. Silence turns the self into a wanderer just as Coleridge imagines that his son Hartley will “wander like a breeze.”
Just as clouds imitate the landscape, Coleridge’s metaphor turns his son into the world he will inhabit. In the poem’s imagined future, Hartley becomes like the animating wind racing across mountains and shores. In Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination, critic Gregory Leadbetter argues that Coleridge believed “our metaphysical ideas shape our becoming,” citing Coleridge’s beautiful statement that “we become that which we believe our gods to be.” As Hartley comes to know and understand the spiritual wisdom embedded in landscapes, he himself will begin to meld with his surroundings.
Coleridge imagines God’s “language” suffusing “all things”—a kind of linguistic connective tissue that underlies the land and, once we understand it, allows our minds to meld with nature. Coleridge envisions that his son will
… 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.
Knowledge leads to more questions. Satiation and thirst are conflated, and the congruence of opposites is the tension that allows creation to proceed. (The child himself, after all, comes from melding two different genetic lines.) Coleridge also introduces the idea that one thing leads back into another, an image of circular experience mirrored by the structure of the poem—a rondo—which, at the end, repeats the phrase secret ministry and returns to the image of frost.
Coleridge wrote that “the common end of all narrative, nay of all poems, is to convert a series into a whole: to make those events which in real or imagined History move in a strait Line, assume to our Understandings a Circular motion—the snake with its Tail in its Mouth.” Coleridge is describing the ouroboros—an ancient image of a snake eating its own tail. This strange creature symbolized the idea that endings cannot be separated from beginnings.
The poem’s final stanza evokes the ouroboros-like progression of seasons and unifies them through metaphor. Coleridge writes that because Hartley will understand God’s “eternal language”:
… 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. …
The “tufts of snow” on the winter branch evoke white sprays of apple blossoms that, in spring, will cover the tree. Winter replicates spring; the image similarly erodes boundaries between plants and animals: tufts—of blossoms, of snow—evoke tufts of feathers on the redbreast’s belly. Similarly, the thatch “smokes” in the “sun thaw.” If Coleridge’s picturesque but highly flammable roof actually began to smoke, the house would be destroyed. The thaw, on the other hand, hails spring and new growth, and, thus, language melds destruction and creation. In his creative autobiography, Biographia Literaria, Coleridge defines imagination as the human capacity to invent new realities, replicating—on a small scale—divine creation. He also identifies another role of the imagination: to unify the world around us. Coleridge writes that this secondary aspect of imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.” Coleridge uses general to mean “creative”—the “general earth” generates life. But, of course, general also means universal—spiritual wisdom and poetic language fuse different forms and reveal their commonality.
Understanding God’s “language” will make all seasons “sweet” to the poet’s son—whether the leaves cover the trees, whether snow coats the branches, or
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.
At the end, the imagined future and the physical present merge. The poet envisions a future version of what he is already experiencing: the stillness of a frosty night. “Trances of the blast” means snatches of quiet between gusts of wind, but trance also evokes enchantment. Silence enfolds magic, the possibility of unexplained revelation. Trance derives from a Latin verb meaning to “go across.” Trance, silence, draws the speaker across the border of the self and into union with the world around him. Midnight is the witching hour, the moment when one day becomes another, when one thing transforms into another. Coleridge evokes ice turning to water, a change that serves only to illustrate how different forms are composed of the same material. The assonance threading through the final lines sonically unites words: “silent icicles, / quietly shining to the quiet Moon.” The icicles shine because they are catching the light of the moon, which, in turn, reflects the sun. Seemingly disparate forms gleam with the same light. The icicles decking the house replicate the distant moon, and the poem’s branching, reiterating patterns reproduce the frost’s intricate designs. The child reflects the father and then becomes like the rushing wind; imagination refigures him in the image of the wild, unbounded world. The temporary imagination imitates the divine, endless transfigurations that shape the mountains and cliffs and fill them with an “eternal language” that, rushing through the wilderness, is caught and replicated briefly in the poem’s stillness.
Katherine Robinson earned an MFA from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, and she lives and teaches in Baltimore. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Hudson Review, Poet Lore, The Common and elsewhere. Her critical interests include the influence of mythology and bardic poetry...