Monday, 21 January 2013

"The Secret Ministry of Frost": Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight'

Frost photo © David Stevens. Used by permission.
It has been snowing in London, and around the UK, on and off for a few days now. Yesterday I watched flakes pouring past my window for hours on end. (I wasn't feeling well and other commitments had already been scuppered, so I wasn't about to actually go out in it.) There is likely to be more on the way, here or elsewhere, and with more snow will come more of the disruption that visits a country which seems utterly unprepared for snow but still gets it on a semi-regular basis.
Anyway, with the coming of the cold came thoughts about Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight'. It is one of my favourite poems by a Romantic poet - perhaps simply one of my favourite poems - and has attached itself to my life in various ways over the years. Recently it took on a little more significance after I saw the cottage where Coleridge wrote the poem, in Somerset, which I wrote about here.
It also reminds me of one of the first English classes I took at university. I was young, only seventeen (which seems even younger to me now) and it was a second-year class, so most of the students were at least two or three years older than me. I remember feeling nervous for the first while and hoping I wasn't going to get told I didn't belong there (a fear I occasionally experience when I feel out of my depth.) However, I also remember the kindness of the professor, whose name now escapes me (only my terrible memory is to blame) but who was from Northern Ireland, I think. His demeanour made it easier to ease into an unfamiliar environment. When I asked about the image of the "film which fluttered on the grate", which told me very little, he explained that this was a vestige of a bygone age and that it was the soot in the fireplace, which was also supposed to be the omen of the coming of a stranger. Strange how I remember that, when other details of studying the poem have gone.
'Frost at Midnight' is, to me, purely poetic in an unselfconscious way. "The Frost performs its secret ministry,/Unhelped by any wind" and "the trances of the blast" have a perfection about them that I have found equalled almost nowhere else in poetry, of any era. Coleridge's focus on his sleeping child, and his hope that the child will perceive in nature the "eternal language" of God, are also deeply moving.
Here, then, is the poem:
FROST AT MIDNIGHT (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
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 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.



  1. "The Frost performs its secret ministry" isn't that just an amazing first line?