Grounded Poetics – Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind.
And so begins my favourite poem by Coleridge. When I was younger I liked Coleridge’s poems better than Wordsworth’s – the language so much more precise, the imagery more vivid, the pace more varied and the tone so much less didactic. Now I am not quite so sure. There is less glitter and flash about Wordsworth, but he is more steeped in his subject, shaped by it more than adapting it to his artistic purposes. And yet.  Can you really resist that picture of the quiet house, the dying fire, the baby asleep in its cradle while the poet  tries to write? or the icicles ‘quietly shining to the quiet moon.‘?
I’m seeing other resonances now. The poet is the only one up – biographies of Wordsworth and Coleridge point out that it was a hardworking household, and what with new babies and all, everyone else is asleep, but Coleridge is restless. Even the calm irritates him and he can’t settle. He is looking at the soot-flag on the hearth – often referred to as ‘the stranger’, and popularly supposed to forecast an imminent visitor – and remembering his lonely schooldays when he would do the same, longing for someone to come and visit him. This is not a contented poem. He finds consolation in his current situation in the beauty of nature, which speaks to him of the wisdom of its creator, and intends to bring his son up familiar with all the manifestations of weather and landscape, wild or serene. It’s all beautiful, and therefore must be wise and healthy.
I’m no longer so convinced, though I am still bewitched by the final lines. Comparing Coleridge and Wordsworth, I am more conscious of Coleridge’s restlessness, his loneliness, his determination to use nature as medicine for what ails him.  Nature is, for him, as a nurturing stability, a refuge from the turbulence of human relationships.  Perhaps I read into it what I know of his later life, but it reminds me a bit of Jay Griffiths. She goes the other way in her engagement with nature, and looks for wildness, an escape from too much structure and control, and stresses ferocity and extravagance, but she is, in effect, doing the same thing – projecting the needs of a troubled personality onto a landscape, using it to find a balance. As a strategy, it didn’t work for Coleridge for too long, and he was soon back in the city, and into a life full of feuds and projects and failures, and less successful ways of medicating his troubles. As a philosophy of nature, I find it wanting in intellectual rigor and responsible praxis. But as a poem of observation, you can’t beat it:
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.
You can find the full text of the poem here:

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