"Frost at Midnight" by Samuel Coleridge 


Volume III Chapter II

Volume III Chapter III

Review of Reviews

Explication of Relevent Poem

Shelley's Letters

Character Analysis


Works Cited

Nature’s inevitable cycle of birth and death has become a theme not only universal, but timeless. It is said that once a birth has occurred death has already made its indelible presence known as it begins its timer to slow deterioration. However, it is not so much the loss of tangible life that provokes despondency among human beings as it is the dissipation of the spirit only a loss of innocence can impose. The Romantics were a generation fascinated and terrified by this idea of nature and its way of manifesting life’s overwhelming and sometimes ugly truths in all of its endless forms. Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem Frost at Midnight thematically addresses immortality of the spirit and of nature through his analogous use of religious faith, disillusionment, and nature.

            The line “The Frost performs its secret ministry” (Mellor, Matlack 697) has already crept upon the reader a sense of religious undertone. His use of the word “ministry” to describe the activity of the frost could not have been unintentional. The exact definition of the word is “something that serves as an agency, instrument, or means,” suggesting that the frost is undertaking some kind of religious or spiritual task. “Only that film, which fluttered on the grate, still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing” (697) refers to the flicker of the flame, which in the sixteenth century, was believed to be some kind of superstitious or spiritual prediction of a lost friend. Coleridge, in lines 16-25, contemplates the strangeness of personification with “the living spirit in our frame” that “transfuses into all its own delights it’s own volition, sometimes with deep faith.” (697) This reference to faith brings us back to the idea of religion as a way to ease oneself from the truth of loneliness or “silence” (697) (as Coleridge puts it) that permeates freely without the protection of a belief in immortality.  During a bittersweet reminisce of his childhood his faith devolves into a “superstitious wish” (697) that he strives to predict the arrival of his lost friend with. He later speaks of his baby and the immortality Coleridge dreams he will someday share with nature in order to “speak the eternal language, which thy God Utters, who from eternity doth teach himself.” (698)

            There is often an innate disillusionment expressed by the poet in terms of his disconnect perhaps from God and from nature. The poem begins with him alone in his cottage where he refers to the rest of his family as the “inmates of the cottage.” (697) It is as if he finds himself and his loved ones to be confined in this place they cannot escape from. He often refers to his solitude and suggests that it suits his “abstruser musings.” (697) The only thing that brings him back to reality is his sons presence beside him; the presence of youth. This sense of disillusionment only grows from here as he speaks of his disturbed meditation caused by the complete silence of his surroundings which is what makes the poem feel so lonely. When he talks about his town he refers to it as a “populous village! Sea, hill, and wood, with all the numberless goings on of life, Inaudible as dreams.” (697) His description of these “goings on of life” as “inaudible” only furthers the impression that he feels disconnect from the general population and the things that occupy them. The flicker of the flame (which held superstitious relevance to people of that time period) is all he describes as being alive in the “hush of nature” (697) and he goes on to say that there was once a time when he too believed in its mystical dimension.

            Though Coleridge seems to have lost his childhood imaginative ability to mystify and find excitement in lifeless things, he often refers to nature as if it is alive and all of its forms work in solidarity to achieve its eternal circularity. In the end of the poem, he suggests that his son will someday “stretch and flutter from thy mother’s arms” which could be a reference to Mother Nature and the ability his son will have to freely fly and “flutter” that he himself does not have. He mentions that he “was rear’d in the great city, pent mid cloisters dim, and saw nought lovely but the sky and stars,” (698) which implies a dankness about city life and points out its disconnect from nature which could possibly be what he believes kept him from the ultimate freedom of nature.  In the line “With unclosed lids already had I dreamt of my sweet birthplace,” (697) Coleridge brings the reader back to this idea of birth and its curious ability to grant freedom and unlimited possibilities. He predicts that his son “shall see and hear the lovely shapes and sounds intelligible of that eternal language.” (698) It seems as though he is saying it is the language of nature only that is eternal and this immortality can only be granted to those who are one with it as his son will be. In the end of the poem we return to the idea of the frost and the spirit manifesting within it. “Whether the eave drops fall, heard only in the trances of the blast, or whether the secret ministry of cold shall hang them up in silent icicles, quietly shining to the quiet moon, like those my babe, which ere to-morrow’s warmth have capp’d their sharp keen points with pendulous drops will catch thine eye.” (698) In that line Coleridge clearly conveys the idea that nature is always silently at work whether it is the cold working to freeze water into icicles, or the warmth working to melt it again (another birth and death cycle). He even goes so far as to put an apostrophe in “to-morrow’s warmth,” (698) suggesting that tomorrow is its own entity and has ownership over the warmth in its jurisdiction.

            Though his disillusionment served to isolate him and peel away the hopes he seems to have had in childhood it is apparent that Coleridge basks in the idea of his son having the chance to be alive, and also that it is somehow a way for Coleridge himself to achieve eternal life (through his son) in a silent world full of motion. Perhaps the way any parent does for their child once their own lives are solidified and regrets begin to emerge. We are all destined to melt away with “to-morrow’s warmth” (698) and achieve eternity only by manifesting ourselves in something eternal.