Frost at Midnight
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.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834)
S1 – The scene is Coleridge’s cottage at Nether Stowey in Somerset. The infant is his son Hartley when aged 17 months. He finds time to himself as other members of the household are in bed. But instead of devoting time to composition he is caught in appreciating the stillness and the dying state of the fire and this becomes his centre of attention and detracts from other considerations. He shares these thoughts in conversation with the reader. The busyness of the village is asleep and is an inaudible background like a dream.
The film is a piece of soot fluttering on the bar of the grate. The only thing that is alive. Coleridge noted that ‘In all parts of the Kingdom these films are called strangers and are supposed to portent the arrival of some absent friend’
S2 – The fluttering sound of the film is the only life around him in the stillness. It becomes his companion and a toy for his thoughts.
S3 – The film now represents the absent friend of his birthplace. Coleridge was born at Ottery St Mary, Devonshire but went to school at the age of nine in London after the death of his father. So, he now recalls the times when a child. In particular, he liked the music of the church bells – the poor mans only music. The ‘stern preceptor’ was the teacher Rev. James Boyer at Christ’s Hospital, London where Coleridge went to school. And when at school in London he would think back to his childhood in the village. He fondly recalled family and play mates at times when he should have been concentrating on school work. His sister and himself were both clothed alike.
S4 – Coleridge now spends his thoughts on appreciating the beauty of his baby son. And he hopes he will have the chance to spend much time with nature; lamenting the fact that he had a city life. This was not entirely true as his first nine years were in the country. And this might have had a profound endearing effect on this dissertation on his love of nature and the hope that his son will come to similar appreciation. And he identifies a strong spiritual link – Of that eternal language, which thy God Utters. A nice way to put it that nature is the language of God. And the stanza ends with recognition of the connection of God in the development of the human soul – Great universal Teacher! he shall mould / Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
S5 – If his son has this understanding of nature therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee. He then identifies aspects of each season. He gives particular emphasis to winter and I do like the image of the night-thatch / Smokes in the sun-thaw. And like the opening there is that word – ministry again.
Very appropriate given the emphasis on the spiritual link with nature.
For a thorough guide to this poem see the following Site. – in the Poetry Foundation – Poem Guide
Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Wikipedia.