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Frost at Midnight
[38]   Frost at Midnight, which many regard as the most successful of the Conversation Poems, was written in February 1798, when Coleridge was still working on The Ancient Mariner.   Surprisingly, despite its air of mystery and the supernatural, the poem was not published in Lyrical Ballads, nor is there any evidence that it was ever considered for inclusion in that volume.   In mid-September 1798, shortly before he left for Germany, Coleridge was in London and arranged that it should be published in a quarto pamphlet along with two other of his poems; the pamphlet, under the imprint of the London bookseller Joseph Johnson, appeared later that year with the title Fears in Solitude, Written in 1798, during the Alarum of an Invasion. To which are added, France, an Ode; and Frost at Midnight. After he returned from Germany, Coleridge suggested to Southey in December 1799 that, if "Johnson should mean to do nothing more" (CL, i 550) with the three poems, they might find a place in Southey's projected Annual Anthology.   Southey was interested, and Coleridge wrote back five days later:   "I will speak to Johnson about the Fears in Solitude -- if he give them up, they are your's" (CL, i 552).   Johnson, however, would not relinquish his right to the poems, and in February 1800 Coleridge told Southey that "The fears in Solitude, I fear, is not my Property -- & I have no encouragement to think, it will be given [39] up" (CL, i 573).   The three poems were later published together in the Poetical Register for 1808-9, and also appeared in 1812 as a separate publication, under the imprint of Law and Gilbert.   Frost at Midnight was finally separated from its two "companion" pieces in Coleridge's Sibylline Leaves (1817), where it was included with a number of the other Conversation Poems in a section entitled "Meditative Poems in Blank Verse".   Thereafter similarly grouped, it was published in all the lifetime editions -- 1828, 1829 and 1834 -- of Coleridge's poetry.
      Like most of Coleridge's poems Frost at Midnight underwent substantial revision over a number of years.   While there are a number of minor variants, the major changes may be limited to two.   First, the quarto edition of 1798 had included a six-line coda (italicised below), so that the original ending of the poem read,
Or whether the secret ministery of cold
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet moon,
Like those, my babe! which ere tomorrow's warmth
Have capp'd their sharp keen points with pendulous drops,
Will catch thine eye, and with their novelty
Suspend thy little soul; then make thee shout,
And stretch and flutter from thy mother's arms
As thou wouldst fly for very eagerness.
When Coleridge offered the poem to Southey in 1799, he noted that it could stand "a little Trimming" (CL, i 552).   Perhaps even that early he had these six concluding lines in mind, for they were omitted in all later editions because (as Coleridge said in a marginal note) they "destroy the rondo, and return upon itself of the Poem".1   In any event, it is easy to assent to Humphry House's judgement that the decision to drop these lines "was one of the best artistic decisions Coleridge ever made".2
      The second major revision centres on lines 19-25 of the final version.   This section, in the 1798 quarto edition, contains ten lines:   unlike the final version, where the film on the grate is a "companionable form" because it echoes the mind's own mood, the 1798 lines stress the activity of "the self-watching subtilizing mind" that anthropomorphises lifeless external things by transfusing into them the mind's "own delights, / Its own volition, sometimes with deep faith / And sometimes with fantastic playfulness".   Later, [40] when the poem was published in the Poetical Register, this same section was expanded to fourteen lines, which make even more explicit the opposition between "common sense" responses to phenomena and such fanciful self-projection ("these wild reliques of our childish Thought").3   The conceptual (or philosophic) problem with both these versions is that creative perception is distrusted and, as well, no allowance is made for a reciprocal interchange of action from without and from within in the act of perception.4   Moreover, Fancy dominates Imagination:   the mind, rather than participating imaginatively in the unity of all life, simply imposes fanciful meanings and associations on external phenomena.   In Sibylline Leaves and in the 1828 version of the poem, although the fourteen lines are compressed into fewer lines, the same difficulties remain:
To which the living spirit in our frame,
That loves not to behold a lifeless thing,
Transfuses its own pleasures, its own will.
It was not, finally, until the revisions for the 1829 edition that the passage assumed its final form, in which the "idling Spirit" finds an "Echo or mirror seeking of itself" in the objects of its contemplation.
      Although the primary "source" of Frost at Midnight is undoubtedly Coleridge's own experience on a cold February night in 1798, it is impossible (as Humphry House has pointed out) not to believe that the poet had a passage from William Cowper's The Task in mind as he wrote:
Me oft has fancy ludicrous and wild
Sooth'd with a waking dream of houses, tow'rs,
Trees, churches, and strange visages express'd
In the red cinders, while with poring eye
I gazed, myself creating what I saw.
Nor less amused have I quiescent watch'd
The sooty films that play upon the bars
Pendulous, and foreboding in the view
Of superstition prophesying still
Though still deceived, some stranger's near approach.
'Tis thus the understanding takes repose
In indolent vacuity of thought,
And sleeps and is refresh'd.   Meanwhile the face
[41]  Conceals the mood lethargic with a mask
Of deep deliberation, as the man
Were task'd to his full strength, absorb'd and lost.
Thus oft reclin'd at ease, I lose an hour
At evening, till at length the freezing blast
That sweeps the bolted shutter, summons home
The recollected powers, and snapping short
The glassy threads with which the fancy weaves
Her brittle toys, restores me to myself.
How calm is my recess, and how the frost
Raging abroad, and the rough wind, endear
The silence and the warmth enjoy'd within.
                      (The Task, iv 286-310; 1785 edn)
While the parallels in situation and imagery, together with a number of verbal echoes ("films", "pendulous", "toys", etc.), would seem to preclude the possibility of coincidence, Coleridge has utterly transformed the passage in adapting it to suit his own purpose.   Indeed, the contrasts are much more remarkable than the similarities.   The case is well put by House:
Cowper emphasises the utter indolence, the insignificance, of his mood and the quite false appearance of "deep deliberation" which he gives to others; and the verse in which he gives expression to this is, strictly, desultory and unshaped . . . .   But in Coleridge's poem there is no question of deceit or of a lost hour; his thought acquires serious content as it moves, and the man is really tasked to his full strength.   What makes Frost at Midnight an achieved artistic whole is the design, the organisation, in the movement of the thought.5
It may be added -- though this is to speculate -- that Coleridge's difficulties with revising lines 19-25 may stem ultimately from the fact that Cowper's fanciful vision, in which the poet "gazed, myself creating what I saw", was too much present to him and that Coleridge (perhaps without ever being consciously aware of it) found it hard to shake himself free of the influence of Cowper's projectionist view of mental activity.
      What makes Frost at Midnight an artistic success, as House points out, is its tightly knit organisation.   As in This Lime-Tree Bower, the poet begins with a sense of his own separation and [42] alienation from the world around him but then rises, as egotism yields to altruism, to a vicarious participation in natural beauty through the imagined responses of his infant son.   The poet's spiritual growth is developed, not only in the characteristic "rondo" device which takes him from his Stowey cottage into strange seas of thought and then returns him to the cottage again, but also in an intricately structured temporal sequence in three movements:   from his present situation he is led, by memory, into the past and then projected forward, in imagination, to a visionary future which both recaptures the past and returns him to his present situation.
      The first movement (lines 1-23) opens with the frost's "secret ministry", which contrasts sharply in its silent operation with the poet's vexed desire to know and explain such mysteries.   His restless mood, which is out of tune with the universal "hush of nature" around him, finds (or seems to find) an analogue in the fluttering film playing over the grate in the fireplace:
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 silentless.   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.
[43]   These lines develop a distinction between solitude and isolation; they establish a tension between the serenity of nature and the agitation of the poet -- and the gap between them widens as the passage progresses.   On the one hand, there is the calm of external nature; but this "extreme silentness" is somewhat illusory, for it is full of activity -- the frost performing its secret ministry, the owlet's cry, the baby's peaceful breathing, the "numberless goings-on of life" throughout the village and the world beyond.   If one is to attune oneself with this activity, however, and understand this mysterious language of silence, then one must listen with the heart as well as with the ear.   On the other hand, in dissonant counterpoint to the unity of life around him, there is the poet's oppressive sense of isolation and the increasingly frantic attempts of his probing intelligence to penetrate the mysterious veil of silence.   He discovers that the "solitude" to which he has been left is not a solace; indeed, it is disquieting and produces an opposite effect in him:   "it disturbs / And vexes meditation with its strange / And extreme silentness".   He attempts to define the calm by cataloguing its components -- "Sea, hill, and wood, / This populous village!" -- but enumeration, even when repeated like an incantation, does not bring revelation.   The "numberless goings-on of life" are inaccessible to him:   "Inaudible as dreams!"   His Stowey parlour (a symbol, like Poole's lime-tree bower in an earlier poem, of the enclosed world of self) becomes a prison in which he is cut off from the life of the larger world.   Unable to communicate with that world, he looks about for something to which he can relate and finds (he thinks) a "companionable form" in the film fluttering on the grate -- "the sole unquiet thing", an analogue of his own restlessness.   But the film, like the roaring dell in This Lime-Tree Bower, is an ambivalent symbol:   it is a companionable reflection of the poet's mood and mind, but at the same time its "puny flaps and freaks" mock his efforts at intellectual activity, making "a toy of Thought".

Click the images for enlarged photographs showing the
exterior and interior of Coleridge's cottage in Lime Street, Nether Stowey
STC's cottage, Nether Stowey, exterior view
STC's cottage, Nether Stowey, interior view

      In the second movement (lines 23-43) intellection gives way to rêverie and the present yields place to the past.   The transition is a smooth one, for the image of the fluttering film (and the popular superstition attached to it6) provides a bridge from actual to remembered experience:
                             But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
[44]  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 birthplace, 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!
In these lines, as Frederick Garber says, the poet "has moved from being a spectator of his current working consciousness into staring at himself as a child; and what he was doing then as a child is exactly what he is doing now as an adult, playing spectator to an earlier acting self . . . .   The mind which had sought for a likeness outside of itself goes one step further and finds one within itself as well".7   In fact, the movement inward is an extremely important one, for the poet's analogising consciousness is more open and responsive to memory than to his present circumstances and search for companionable forms in the world outside himself.   In this section two biographical memories are superimposed on one another in a kind of poetic double-exposure:   the poet relives those times at Christ's Hospital when, unhappy and alone, the fluttering stranger had reminded him of his happy childhood in Ottery St Mary, and he recalls how the vision of his "sweet birth-place" had lingered with him during school-hours and superstitiously prompted him to hope that the schoolroom door would open to reveal this glad past in the shape of an Ottery townsman or his aunt or his beloved sister Anne (who had died in March 1791 during his last term at Christ's Hospital).8
      This second section, with its overlaid presentation of two former [45] selves, is pivotal.   On the one hand, the image of the lonely dreaming schoolboy imprisoned beneath the stern preceptor's gaze gathers up and refocuses the restless alienation, the oppressive sense of solitude, explored in the opening movement.   On the other hand, however, the joyous Ottery memories -- dominated by the haunting music of the church-bells -- look forward to the third section of the poem and the "natural" education that his son will experience under the benevolent preceptorship of the "Great universal Teacher", who reveals "Himself in all, and all things in himself".   Janus-like, then, the second movement has a double aspect; it is both a recapitulation and an anticipation.   The door that opens on the past leads also to the future; and the "presageful" stranger does in fact arrive when the poet glances up from himself to see his infant son standing, as it were, in the door "half opened" by reflection and reminiscence.
      In the third section (lines 44-74) the contrapuntal exploration of self is further developed in the contrast between the poet's past when he was "pent 'mid cloisters dim" at Christ's Hospital and his son's projected education amid the beauties of the natural world.   The infant's gentle breathing, which interrupts the "abstruser musings" and train of associated memories, returns Coleridge momentarily to the present and then sends him forward to an altruistic benediction in which he transcends self by rediscovering it in and through his son:
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
[46]  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 nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw;9 whether the eavesdrops 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.
The "deep calm" around him that had originally pressured him into perplexity is no longer vexing or alien, nor is it inaccessible to him.   Sound and silence coexist symbiotically:   the water-drops heard falling from the eaves or being hung in silent icicles, the blowing wind and the secret ministry of frost, are all parts and portions of one wondrous whole; they are now, as the poet listens with his heart as well as with his ear, the intelligible sounds of one eternal language.   And, as his thought turns from himself to his sleeping child, he realises -- in Max Schulz's words -- that "the beneficent and awesome processes of life taking place outside in nature and inside the cottage . . . are identical".10   The eavesdrops heard "in the trances of the blast" are analogous to the baby's gentle breathings, and the robin imagined as pouring out its soul on the snow-tufted boughs of the apple-tree has its counterpart in the poet who, having carried "the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood",11 sings now in full-throated ease.   Understanding, insight and reconciliation have come to him through childhood -- his own and that of his son.   In this instance at least, then, the child truly is the father of the man.
      Frost at Midnight is the record of an epiphany.   It dramatises a movement "from the willful and superstitious solipsism of a depressed sensibility, toying with a companionable form, to the apprehension of a regenerate companionship, based not on superstition but on substantial belief".12   (Significantly, the revelation -- or [47] self-revelation -- occurs at midnight; that is, at the transitional moment between the end of the old and the beginning of a new day.)   It is a religious poem which describes the attainment through the visible world of an insight into the invisible world beyond.   The poem begins and ends with the "secret ministry" of frost -- a mystery which is explored but never explained.   "The meaning of the poem", as Robert Langbaum has succinctly expressed it, "is in all that has accrued since the original vision, in the gain in perception. But the gain is rather in the intensity of understanding than in what is understood", for (as in Tintern Abbey) "the revelation is not a formulated idea that dispels mystery, but a perception that advances in intensity to a deeper and wider, a more inclusive, mystery".13   At the heart of this mystery lies the blending, the balanced reconciliation, of the familiar and the strange -- a mystery that is perhaps best described, not by a literary critic, but by another poet, in a little quatrain that Coleridge himself might have written:
That shining moon -- watched by that one faint star:
Sure now am I, beyond the fear of change,
The lovely in life is the familiar,
And only the lovelier for continuing strange.14

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[Click on asterisk (*) at the end of a note to return to the point you left in the text]
  1. Quoted by B. Ifor Evans, in TLS, 18 Apr 1935, p. 255. *
  2. House, Coleridge (cf. Introduction, n. 6), p. 82. *
  3. E.H. Coleridge quotes these variants in full:   see CPW, i 240- 1. *
  4. I have discussed Coleridge's view of perception and its relation to imagination (and fancy) in the Introduction to my Imagination in Coleridge (London, 1978) esp. pp. 1-3 and 21-3. *
  5. House, Coleridge, p. 79. *
  6. In a footnote to line 15 Coleridge explains that "In all parts of the kingdom these films are called strangers and supposed to portend the arrival of some absent friend".   See also Cowper's The Task, iv 291-5:   quoted above, p. 40. *
  7. Garber, in TWC (cf. Introduction, n. 3), 130-1. *
  8. On Coleridge's affection for his sister and his grief at her death, see the two sonnets concerning her composed in 1791:   CPW, i 20- 1. *
  9. There is an early version of this image in a Notebook entry belonging (probably) to the winter of 1797-8:
    The reed-roof'd Village, still bepatch'd with snow
    Smok'd in the sun-thaw.
                                  (CN, i 329) *
  10. Schulz, The Poetic Voices of Coleridge (cf. Introduction, n. 2), p. 94. *
  11. Biographia Literaria, ch. 4 (BL, i 59). *
  12. Reeve Parker, Coleridge's Meditative Art (London and Ithaca, N.Y., 1975) p. 127. *
  13. Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience:   The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (London and New York, 1957; repr. 1972) p. 46. *
  14. Walter de la Mare, "Night", from Memory and Other Poems (1938):   The Complete Poems of Walter de la Mare (London, 1969) p. 378. *

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