Perhaps best known for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1817) and Kubla Khan (1817), Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English author whose work spanned from poetry to the political commentary in his later years. Coleridge was born in 1772 as the last of ten children during a period of political and social revolution; he died in 1834 after years of battling an opium problem. His work was often impacted by the era's upheavals, even in his first publishing venture. The play was The Fall of Robespierre; it was written with Robert Southey in 1794, when the two young men were undergraduates at Jesus College in Cambridge. Coleridge’s next and more famous collaboration was with William Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, to which he contributed a number of poems. These were written while living in a cottage in Nether Stowey where he produced some of his more memorable work, including Frost at Midnight (1798).
Frost at Midnight is a dramatic conversation poem where Coleridge speaks to his young son after reflecting on his own life. The poem includes Coleridge's memory of the grammar school he was sent to as a child, Christ's Hospital, and his relationship with the sister. After mulling over these events, Coleridge addresses his son, hoping the boy will commune with nature as he grows and be blessed by all the seasons.
Major Themes and Scenes
While Frost at Midnight is not a Gothic narrative, it does contain elements of the style, such as isolation. This trope is easily identified in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as the mariner in question spends a portion of the poem alone on a ship. In Midnight, a much shorter narrative, loneliness and solitude occur in tandem before the poet gazes upon his son.
Using multiple senses for description is a Romantic trait which is applied to this isolationist theme. For sight, Coleridge opens the poem after the other inhabitants of the cottage – his wife and son – are asleep and “Have left me to that solitude” (5). He dwells on school, where he “gazed upon the bars”, and throws hasty glances toward the door in hopes to see his rescuer in the form of his aunt or sister (25, 40-43). While the bars refer to a grate rather than a prison, the latter image is still evoked in a stanza filled with Coleridge's preference for daydreams rather than study and eagerness to escape the place. Coleridge uses his childhood environment again when thinking on his upbringing. Raised in the city, Coleridge’s view of nature in childhood is limited to “pent ‘mid cloisters dim” (52), a line which echoes Wordsworth’s desire for humanity to return to nature. The senses continues with sound shortly after.
‘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! (8-13)The “sole unquiet thing” is a piece of soot fluttering on the grate, solitary in noise as Coleridge is in thought (16). The unnatural stillness lends itself to constructing an atmosphere of solitude.
The poem begins and ends with frost, which is identified twice with an emphasis on its secrecy. “The frost performs its secret ministry, / Unhelped by any wind” (1-2). The last lines also touch on sight and sound once more. Additionally, the presence of frost and icicles demand the consideration of temperature, representing touch. “…Or if the secret ministry of frost / Shall hang them up in silent icicles, / Quietly shining to the quiet Moon” (73-75).
Even Coleridge’s vision for his son is one of solitude. “But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze / By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags / Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds…” (54-56). Implied is that the child will walk within nature alone, marveling upon the seasons. The wandering breeze can be explained as wanderlust, a feature that frequently appears in this Gothic trope. In combination with the descriptions of a cold winter (a barren season), isolation can be seen throughout this narrative.
An important scene in Frost at Midnight is Coleridge’s remembrance of his schooling. This takes up the second stanza and includes multiple elements of Romanticism, such as memory, nature, and imagination. Isolation (as described above) and tension are also present, representing the Gothic. Coleridge’s segue into this recollection is a shared sentiment with the “puny flaps” of a piece of soot, which “makes a toy of Thought” (20, 23).
Longing is present within the first portion, as he listens to the church bells while confined indoors. “So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me / With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear / Most like articulate sounds of things to come!” (31-33). This description employs a Romanticist trait of using the senses to better connect with the reader.Coleridge later tells his son that he was raised in the city and being cut off from nature meant he "saw nought lovely but the sky and stars (53). This further contributes to the tension in this stanza. The disconnection is also given a spiritual element. Only when Coleridge’s son dwells in nature does God become the “Great universal Teacher” (63) and a sharp contrast to Coleridge’s own teacher. “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…” (36-38).
Imagination exists in daydreaming here, as Coleridge gazes “till the soothing things I dreamt / Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!” (34-35). The dreaming is connected to the previous stanza’s piece of soot, mentioned earlier. The poet as a boy “with unclosed lids” gazes upon soot trapped in the bars of the grate within the school (25). Thus, Coleridge has created a cyclical pattern here, as his memories of school have been initiated by the soot currently present in his cottage.
Relevance to Romanticism and Nature
“Conversation Poem” is a category first named by scholar G.M. Harper and broadly describes poetry which is sociable or genial, contains soliloquies, and examines narrator's relationship to nature (Holstein 223). Frost at Midnight is part of a collection of eight poems penned by Coleridge which are included in this category. The other seven consist of the The Eolian Harp (1796), Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement (1796), This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison (1800), Fears in Solitude (1798), The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem (1798), Dejection: An Ode (1802), and To William Wordsworth (1817).
Frequently included in this category is Wordsworth’s poetry, such as Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, written in 1798. One of Wordsworth’s primary concerns, detailed in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads (1798), is humanity’s lack of imagination, due in part to urbanization. He believes that “the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulations; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity…” (436). To counteract this dependence upon excessive stimulation, Wordsworth focuses on returning to rustic life and pastoral scenes with communal, everyday language. Examination of the sublime and mankind’s relationship to nature by way of soliloquy are two themes that occur in Wordsworth’s poetry and in Abbey; thus, he and Coleridge are sometimes considered joint creators of this style.
Wordsworth’s Abbey is a reflection on the poet’s memory and his connection to nature. Coleridge focuses on the relationship between nature and his son, as he envisions the boy wandering “By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags / Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds…” (55-56). By contrast, Wordsworth’s examination occurs while in conversation with his sister, Dorothy. “Oh! Yet a little while / May I behold in thee what I was once, / My dear, dear Sister!” (120-122). Unlike Coleridge, Wordsworth’s own thought for the future is tied firmly to her memory of himself and their occupation of this natural space he spends the poem describing. His final lines hope she will continue to remember his presence, as “That on the bank of this delightful stream / We stood together…” (151-152).
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