The title ‘Frost at Midnight’ conjures an image of cold discomfort. Divided into four sections, the poem, may be read as a lyric, expressing strong personal feelings free from the control of rhymed pattern. For the sake of analysis the poem may be divided further according to the musing mood and reflection.
The first part of the poem, lines 1-7 describe the setting with reflection on the silent, mystical workings of nature unhindered by the “owlet’s cry”. The repetition emphasises the scene surrounding the poet’s thought. Note the way a sense of reciprocity is established between the human world and the world of nature. The poet is alone with his thoughts including a “solitude” which is conducive to serious thinking, about issues of major significance: “save that…” draws the attention of the reader to another presence, that of a slumbering infant. Does the poet feel the need to be more concerned about the infant or does the presence of the infant raise issues of specific significance? The second part of the poem, lines 8-16 take up the theme of natural stillness which is only a superficial calmness because it generates a sense of discomfort. Note the use of “silentness”, a typical example of the way in which the Romantics played or re- created diction. Samuel Taylor Coleridge more than other Romantics, was sensitive to the supernatural and incorporated the element in his poetry. From personal musings the poet moves to the objective – and skims over in his mind, the scene of his village. Note the repetition of “sea, hill and wood” which creates a sense of continuity and multiplicity “with all the numberless goings on of life. / Inaudible as dreams!” The idea contained in the lines echoes the sense of “Frost performing its secret ministry”. There is in life as in nature a mysterious spirit that imparts motion. The poet suggests the strange depth of life in all its various forms. The invisible is as real as the visible. The Romantic temperament of Coleridge bears upon the sensuous interpretation of the most ordinary happening in life. Silence and the inanimate have their own life and essential being. The poet’s eye travels to the fire place and perceives other images striking in their juxtaposition, engulfed in a stillness and yet not still. The “blue flame” is still but particles of soot are in constant motion and in the picture of surrounding stillness within and without, it is the film i.e. the soot which is driven by some quiet force “flutters” unquietly which implies a sense of unrest within the observer’s mind.
In the third section i.e. lines 17-23 the poet’s mind concentrates on the “film” and this section builds on the anticipated identification of the poet with the film. In the elaborate description that follows, the poet reveals his personalized thoughts of isolation. Since stillness and silence are almost benumbing, the flutter of the film becomes compassionate. The tiny specks of soot create a willful motion of their own re-defining and re-forming themselves, defying an imposed identity, skimming playfully over the serious business of living.
In the next section from lines 24-33, the poet’s mind is transported to the childhood days of school time. The sight of the film in the previous section conjures the memory of longing and anticipation of the visit of a loved one from home, “my sweet, birth-place.” And yet when there was no visit the thought of how the village lived, the sounds it contained and the simple pleasures it provided filled the heart with palpable delight. Words like “film” and “flutter” find a co-relation with dreams of “unclosed lids”. The tenor changes with the sound of “haunted” the word spells out the utter loneliness of the child in school far away from a loved home.
The next section, lines 34-43 re-create the loved images, mingling and merging the present with the past, rousing the sense of nostalgia, which took away the concentration on study. The lines bring out the disjunction between the physical and the rental – the freedom of the spirit against the fixity of the body film and flame in the second section is extended to another visionary experience in the fifth section.
The second part of the poem and the sixth section, lines 44-53, describe the sleeping infant in all its tender beauty which impels the on-looker to wish for better, healthier and by implication more natural surroundings for the nourishment of the child’s mind. His learning would be different in every way from that imparted in a typical city school. The lack of fatherly protection in Coleridge’s own childhood could have been the stirring force behind the tender endearments lavished on the child. The lines also suggest the poet’s own deprivation or severance from surrounding nature.
The next section, lines 54-64 articulate the determination of a loving parent who lays out his own idea of education. The imagery is typically Romantic, which forms Wordsworth’s recollection of childhood days amidst hills, and hedges, streams and woods. It may be noted that the shared images of Wordsworth and Coleridge appeared in poetic form in the same year i.e. 1798, when Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ and ‘Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight” were published. The whole section is an ‘adoration’ of nature in its multiple forms, colours and sounds. The sights are the sources of that knowledge which God conveys. The visible forms of nature are manifestations of God who is integrated with everything and thus, everything is a part of God. This section is one of the finest examples of the “religion” of the Romantics. Both Coleridge and Wordsworth were known for their belief in Pantheism – a system of nature worship, or a belief in and worship of all gods known to a society. The term refers to the religious idea that God and the universe are the same thing and that God is present in all natural things. The concluding lines of this section are a natural corollary to the idea of Pantheism. “Great Universal Teacher! he shall mould / Thy spirit and by giving make it ask”. The concept of nature as guide and preceptor is essential to the nineteenth century British Romantics. Learning the virtues of life is brought about best through close association with nature. Note how God is replaced with a teacher who enriches the spiritual life of a person, patiently responding to the continuous queries. The third section of the poem which corresponds to the eighth part (lines 65-74) for the sake of analysis leads to the concluding thought “Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee”. The thought is like a statement which establishes the pleasant outcome of learning from nature. The remaining lines are rich in the simple description of variegated nature in all its seasons, moods and quiet acts. Line 72 repeats the notion of the secret ministry of frost with which the poem begins and moves on to re-create the image of active silence, which is the essence of nature. Learning from nature enhances the human potential for love, acceptance and the ability to absorb the ever changing shades and seasons of nature. Summer, winter, spring, autumn, each season lends its own shade of meaning to the process of learning. Acts of “sun-thaw”, “eave-drops” “trances of the blast”, “silent icicles” are only a few of those chapters of learning which, the poet implies are continuously being re- written with new wonder, by nature. The last line of the poem, “Quietly shining to the quiet moon restores the sense of spoken silence under the gaze of the moon. The moon is often used by the Romantics as a symbol of the mysteries of nature, the silent wanderer which manifests in its phases, the variety of moods. The note of “unquiet” earlier in the poem is restored to the “quiet”.
Frost at midnight is often cited as a typical Romantic poem, weaving memory, sensuous experience, the child, the supernatural and the natural to construct a thought. In this poem the idea of the “universal Teacher” is a definite statement on education.