Poem of the Day: ‘Frost at Midnight’
Coleridge’s poem has been called ‘the greatest hymn to fatherly love ever written.’
In February 1798, in a house on the edge of Somerset’s Quantock Hills, William Wordsworth sat drafting the first exploratory passages of his great poem, “The Prelude.” At the same time, his friend, collaborator, and neighbor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), whose birthday we mark today, was at work on great poems of his own.
That year of 1798 would prove to be the breakthrough for Wordsworth and Coleridge, with the first publication of their joint project, “Lyrical Ballads,” which on any timeline of English literature is its own major event.
In his famous preface to the second edition, Wordsworth declares a revolution in poetry: to vanquish the “gaudiness and inane phraseology” of the eighteenth century with a poetic language rooted in “humble and rustic life . . . because in that condition the passions of men are are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”
In early 1798, however, through the frozen nights, what each of them was doing was writing poems. Beside these poems, the abstractions of Wordsworth’s preface feel like so much earnest wind.
Take today’s Poem of the Day, “Frost at Midnight,” for example. In “The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths, and Their Year of Marvels,” Adam Nicolson calls this poem “the greatest hymn to fatherly love ever written.” He is not wrong. In those early drafts of “The Prelude,” Wordsworth was sketching a reminiscent boyhood dream predominated by “beautiful and permanent forms of nature,” which have made his soul.
Meanwhile, the Coleridge of “Frost at Midnight” both laments the city-boundedness of his own boyhood and rejoices in the vision of a better life, nourished by the goodness of natural places, for the sleeping baby whose soul is as hungry and alive as the fire in the grate. What are the generalized “passions of men” to the particularity of that moment, that wholly new person asleep in his cradle?
This father commits himself to the intuitive vow of every good parent: You will have it better than I did. But how beautiful Coleridge makes it all, in blank verse that marks the details of the present scene, cycling back to them at the end as if to draw, around himself and his sleeping child, a circle of lasting peace.
Frost at Midnight
by 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 night-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.
With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.
Mr. Bottum is the author of eight books, including An Anxious Age and The Decline of the Novel. Director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University, he has written over 800 essays, poems, reviews, and short stories in publications from the Atlantic to the Washington Post. His poetry collections include The Fall & Other Poems and The Second Spring, and he has received a 2019 Christopher Medal for his poetry in the year’s best children’s book. He lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota.