Frost at Midnight: Naturphilosophie in the Work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

SAMUEL Taylor Coleridge was born in the small Devon town of Ottery St. Mary in 1772 and, in association with his great friend William Wordsworth (1770-1850), remains one of England’s greatest Romantic poets. Here, I intend to take a look at one of Coleridge’s most beautiful and enduring works.

Frost at Midnight was composed in February 1798 and is a perfect example of the eight ‘conversation poems’ that Coleridge produced between 1795 and 1807, each of which describe a particular childhood memory. This one, in particular, is influenced by the Neoplatonism of Ancient Greece and the contemporary Romanticist philosophy that was being produced by Novalis (1772-1801), Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) and Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854). By fusing Monism with elements of Rationalism and Spinozism in an attempt to overcome the Cartesianism of René Descartes (1596-1650), the Transcendental Idealism of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the Subjectivism of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), these ideas gradually evolved into the formidable school of thought which G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831) later described as Absolute Idealism.

Frost at Midnight, with its deeply pantheistic overtones,is a poetic summation of the mysterious spirit that pervades the natural world. A more appropriate term, perhaps, is Naturphilosophie, something developed by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) as a means of contesting the ideas of Kant. Herder also received more than a little help from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who took a keen interest in both plants and the theory of colour. Absolute Idealism, then, was the result of this earlier attempt to explore the relationship between pure spirit and biological matter and Coleridge had been following the efforts of his German counterparts with some interest.

The poem under discussion attempts to convey the memories of Coleridge’s time at Christ’s Hospital School in the West Sussex town of Horsham, an experience he enjoyed, but is it nonetheless slightly negative in the sense that he was hopeful that his son would not be deprived of the mystical delights of the countryside in the way that he had been. Education, for Coleridge, had often intruded upon his childlike fascination with the natural world.

Moving on, the first stanza of the poem conveys an atmosphere of religious stealth and is particularly indicative of the arcane mystery that always accompanies the arrival of frost itself and, coupled with the use of the word “Midnight” in the title, suggests that there is something rather exciting about the sixty minutes of unpredictability that we have come to know as the Witching Hour:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,

Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry

Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.

The language soon becomes very conversational, as Coleridge appeals to the imagination of the reader and invites us to listen to the sound of the young owl. He continues:

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

The air of intense isolation is only too apparent, as one realises that the central character – Coleridge himself – is quite alone and that the “inmates” of the cottage are all sleeping very soundly. Save, of course, for the little child, who “slumbers peacefully” and yet briefly occupies the thoughts of those occupying the same room (“vexes meditation”) and leads them, merely through silence, to distraction.

The conversational tone continues with the repetition of the “sea, hill, and wood” and is followed by the suggestion of an unbridgeable gulf between “the numberless goings-on of life” in the daytime and the comparative peace of night-time. Stillness, it seems, somehow accentuates the constant presence of the natural world and even the low flame suggests the presence of a timeless mystery and carries aloft the lonely torch of eternal spirit. The fire itself, which “quivers not,” deepens the sense of isolation and yet creates a coming-together between the narrator and the wider world.

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.

As with the philosophy of German Idealism, the lines between the Self and the Absolute are suddenly blurred and by employing terms such as “companionable form” and “every where echo or mirror” Coleridge is able to convey this enduringly Romantic stance perfectly.

In the next verse, Coleridge becomes very anecdotal and it is as though his memories of childhood are beginning to run away with him:

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!

Whilst the previous verse had concerned the reflective thoughtfulness of restful slumber, with the arrival of this latest section nocturnal contemplation now manifests itself in the form of a more detailed reflection of one’s youthful existence (“gazed upon the bars”). In the background, however, is the overriding religiosity of “the old church tower” that brings a feeling of warmth and happiness and the promise of better “things to come”.

These thoughts continue into the following morning, when the young Coleridge is unwillingly languishing in the confines of his classroom, ever-fearful of the “stern preceptor’s face” and pretending to engage in his studies. Falling asleep, the child’s dreams become a refuge and the poet is eager to portray a sense of unhappiness in the sense that the chance of looking up and alighting upon a “stranger’s face” would become a form of escapism that could take him away from the daily rigours of education. Note, too, how there is a difference between the solitude felt in the quiet cottage and the ironic loneliness of a busy classroom. Sleep, therefore, becomes an escape from reality and the potential for someone he knows to enter the room and break the tedious monotony a seditious yearning for freedom.

The memories end, time moves forward and Coleridge now turns his thoughts towards his baby son:

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.

The verse concerns the hope that Coleridge has for his own offspring and the immense love and pride of fatherhood (“My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart with tender gladness”) burns with a desire for the child to become infused with the breath of life (“wander like a breeze”) and experience the beauty and fullness of the natural world. Considering the overwhelming claustrophobia of the last verse, in which Coleridge was trapped inside a classroom, this wish for his son to stroll beside “lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags / Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds” seems rather liberating. The child, bearing the potential to experience that which had been denied to his father, would be in the hands of the “Great universal Teacher!”. Once again, this is a clear hint at the marvellously pantheistic values that permeate German Naturphilosophie. There is also the suggestion in the final line that by forming the child’s character and causing his spirit to think (“make it ask”) the Absolute can fulfil itself in the way that Schelling’s notion of nature looking back at itself through the eyes of man had so influenced Romanticist philosophy in general. Frost at Midnight ends with these optimistic words:

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.

By reapplying the term “secret ministry,” Coleridge is keen to infer that everything lies in the hands of a hidden force of nature that can appear in a multitude of different forms. Indeed, whether it be in human guise or “silent icicles” parading before a “quiet Moon,” for the poet the Absolute constitutes the be all and end all of everything. We do not merely observe the beauty of nature at work, either, we are part of its great mystery. Through active thought and contemplation, we begin to approach an understanding of our true role in life. Thus can all human souls partake in the “secret ministry” of the universe that reveals the link between man, nature and God.

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