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Frost at Midnight -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Guest poem sent in by Mark Penney

All this Romantic poetry brought me back to my favorite Romantic poet of
them all, particularly since it's really cold here tonight:
(Poem #1606) 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 interspersed 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 nigh 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
One of the great things about the Romantics is their spectacular reinvention
of blank verse.  You could read "Frost at Midnight" almost without the
awareness that there was conscious effort put into the meter. It's just a
guy, looking out the window, watching his world freeze over, admiring its
beauty, and then letting his mind wander from there.  And yet it's in this
most astoundingly beautiful and perfect, yet conversational, blank verse.

Coleridge notes that films in one's grate are referred to as "strangers,
supposed to portend the arrival of some absent friend."

This poem captures the perfect beauty and stillness of a cold winter night
better than any other poem I know.  It's so still that the frost actually
represents action; it's practically a living thing, performing its secret
ministry.  And then it's something so small and quiet as the motion of the
film in the grate that starts Coleridge's own mind working--quietly too, in
its own way.  A masterpiece.



Minstrels has run three Coleridge poems before, but none since 2000;
none of the previous posts contain anything at all in the way of
biography.  I'm not the Britannica, but here goes:  Coleridge
(1772-1834) was a contemporary and close friend of Wordsworth's; in 1798
the two poets wrote and published the seminal book Lyrical Ballads,
which is generally regarded as the founding document of English
Romanticism.  (The full text is online in several places; go read it!)
Coleridge is also notable as a literary critic and theorist; his
Biographia Literaria is the seminal work in that area.  The most famous
Coleridge poems are undoubtedly Kubla Khan, The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner, and this one.

[Links] has another biography and a
selection of Coleridge's works

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