Frost at Midnight
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798)
The scene is a small cottage, in a crisp winter night, and the poet Coleridge is awake beside the low fire, and his sleeping infant son. He looks to that fire, and he sees a sort of film flickering on the iron grate, a film of soot glowing with heat. In England, that film was called the “stranger.” If you saw one, it meant that somebody was going to visit you soon. Coleridge remembers seeing it once when he was at school, in the city, and hoping that somebody was going to come from his home village in the country — a townsman, or his aunt, or his dear sister, his playmate there when he was a small boy, and boy and girl were dressed alike.
Then the poet looks again to the baby in the crib, and it’s with a quiet hope, because that child will not be trammeled up in the city. He will be closer to the things God made, and he will hear God’s voice in them.
It is an exquisitely lovely and tender poem, and though Coleridge sometimes comes near to saying that if we want to listen to God, all we have to do is to listen to nature, he never quite commits himself to that. And we in our time, we who live so far from the creatures of earth and sea and sky, can do a lot worse than what the poet does here, in meditating upon that world God made. Coleridge is confident that the child will be the better for living near to the world of woods and streams and hills than he himself was, when he was alone in school, far from home.
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.
The glass on the wood stove often revealed a form from the fire within. Each time a form appeared
prayers were offered for a purgatorial soul in distress.
These smokey spirits were the " strangers" petitioning release from their torment.
What a beautiful poem! Dr. Esolen, I've been a subscriber to your Substack for several months now and I am thoroughly enjoying it but I have to say, I really love the art that you put in the poems and your reflections. You inspired me to make a "book" of autumnal poems accompanied with autumnal artwork for my sons (ages 11, 8, and 4) and I will be making a winter-themed collection very soon for them. Thank you sir!