Frost at Midnight by Coleridge: Summary & Critical Analysis

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  • 0:00 Brief Biography
  • 1:11 Stanza One
  • 3:15 Stanza Two
  • 4:42 Stanza Three
  • 7:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
''Frost at Midnight'' was written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and is considered to be his greatest conversational poem. In this lesson, we will both summarize and analyze this classic piece of literature from the Romantic era.

Brief Biography

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devonshire in 1772. His father died when he was very young. As Coleridge grew up, it became evident that he was a gifted writer and speaker. He attended Cambridge University and later met William Wordsworth. The two became close friends and often discussed poetry together.

Early on, he married a woman he did not love, Sara Fricker, because he was pressured by a friend to do so. Later on, he fell in love with another woman, Sara Hutchison, but could not marry her because of his first marriage. This troubled him all of his life. He finally separated from his first wife, and, in the meantime, developed a dependency on the drug laudanum, a type of opium. He suffered health problems as a result and was generally depressed. He and Wordsworth parted ways for some time but later reconciled. Probably one of Coleridge's finest literary contributions is his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, although it is only one of his brilliant works. Coleridge died in 1834.

Stanza One

Frost at Midnight is a beautifully-crafted, 4-stanza poem written primarily in iambic pentameter. We will interpret and analyze the poem stanza by stanza. Although it is fairly long, it reads easily and is worth taking time to absorb.

Stanza one reads:

'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.'

To summarize this first stanza, Coleridge, the speaker of the poem, is sitting in his cottage late at night, meditating and listening while everyone in the cottage is asleep. His baby is sleeping peacefully in a cradle beside him. He is amazed at how silent everything is. The fire is dying out in his grate. The entire mood of the poem so far is peaceful. He only hears a soft fluttering from a film on the grate. He is lost in thought.

Stanza Two

Stanza two reads:

'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!'

In this stanza, Coleridge reminiscences about his childhood. He thinks about how when he was in school he would literally fall asleep in class and dream of home with its familiar sights, sounds, family and friends. It seems that he was a lonely, homesick student.

Stanza Three

Stanza three reads:

'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.

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