Elements of introduction
The poem under study is “Frost at Midnight”, composed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English poet who was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England. It is part of the conversation poems, a series of 8 poems composed by Coleridge between 1795 and 1807 ; each details a particular life experience which leads to the poet's examination of nature and the role of poetry. Written in 1798, “Frost at midnight” discusses Coleridge's childhood experience in a quite negative manner and emphasizers the need to be brought up in the countryside. In this poem, the narrator comes to an understanding of nature while isolated with his thoughts. Nature becomes a comfort, however, the poet remembers the loneliness of childhood when he felt isolated from nature and other people, as if living in a world of strangers. His hope is that his own child, David Hartley, will experience an easier and more harmonious life.
In this conversation poem, the speaker is generally held to be Coleridge himself ; the poem is quiet, very personal restatement of the abiding themes of early English Romanticism : the effect of nature on imagination, the relationship between children and natural world, contrast between this liberating country setting and the city, relationship btw adulthood and childhood as they are linked in adult memory. Like many Romantic verse monologues of this kind such as “Tintern Abbey” as a notable example, this poem is written in blank verse, a term used to describe unrhymed lines metered in iambic pentameter.
and the silent listener is his infant son, Hartley. The setting of the poem is late at night, when Coleridge is the only one awake in the household. He sits next to his son's cradle and reflects on the frost falling outside the home. He takes this instant of solitude to allow his reflections to expand to his love of nature.
I - A typical conversation poem
Coleridge begins by creating a tone of solemn gentleness in the first line, as the frost is described as performing a “secret ministry” : the frost ministers without the help of the wind (l2), thus takes the bite out of the chilly night air and maintains a silence throughout the landscape. The only sound he can hear is the owl (l2-3), but its sudden interruption of the quiet is counterpoised with the sleepers in the cottage, whose rest remains undisturbed.
The speaker enjoys this midnight solitude, although he notes that he is not truly alone : his “cradled infant slumbers peacefully” beside him (l7). The baby's presence only serves to accentuate the speaker's solitude since this child, too, sleeps while the speaker alone is awake at this late hour.
At first, he finds the absolute stillness disturbing ; he takes comfort in the seeming sympathy of the only stirring object in the house or beyond – a film across the grate (grille de foyer) – the “sole unquiet thing” (l16). The speaker sees a similarity between himself and the “puny flaps and freaks” of the grate (l20). The insensible film interprets the moving of air without a guiding reason, so too does the speaker “makes a toy of thought” (l23).
Transition : by shifting the scene of the second stanza to his boyhood and summertime, Coleridge manages to create a sense of the inner discomfort that the speaker feels in his midnight vigil (une veille) in the cottage.
A poem which conveys many beliefs of the romantic movement
Themes of 'power of sleep', dreams and imagination
The image that connects these themes is the “thin blue flame” in the fireplace.
Christopher R. Miller in “Coleridge and the Scene of Lyric Description” : he identifies the “flickering of the ember” as a “counterpoint to Coleridge's own insomniac musings”. Peter Barry in “Coleridge the Revisionnary : Surrogacy and Structure in the Conversation Poems” : He asserts that the dying flame is representative of Coleridge's reproof of the “directionlessness in his Spirit” : “like the flame, his own...
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