As the frost “performs its secret ministry” in the windless night, an owlet’s cry twice pierces the silence. The “inmates” of the speaker’s cottage are all asleep, and the speaker sits alone, solitary except for the “cradled infant” sleeping by his side. The calm is so total that the silence becomes distracting, and all the world of “sea, hill, and wood, / This populous village!” seems “inaudible as dreams.” The thin blue flame of the fire burns without flickering; only the film on the grate flutters, which makes it seem “companionable” to the speaker, almost alive—stirred by “the idling Spirit.”
“But O!” the speaker declares; as a child he often watched “that fluttering stranger” on the bars of his school window and daydreamed about his birthplace and the church tower whose bells rang so sweetly on Fair-day. These things lured him to sleep in his childhood, and he brooded on them at school, only pretending to look at his books—unless, of course, the door opened, in which case he looked up eagerly, hoping to see “Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved, / My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!”
Addressing the “Dear Babe, that sleep[s] cradled” by his side, whose breath fills the silences in his thought, the speaker says that it thrills his heart to look at his beautiful child. He enjoys the thought that although he himself was raised in the “great city, pent ’mid cloisters dim,” his child will wander in the rural countryside, by lakes and shores and mountains, and his spirit shall be molded by God, who will “by giving make it [the child] ask.”
All seasons, the speaker proclaims, shall be sweet to his child, whether the summer makes the earth green or the robin redbreast sings between tufts of snow on the branch; whether the storm makes “the eave-drops fall” or the frost’s “secret ministry” hangs icicles silently, “quietly shining to the quiet Moon.”
Like many Romantic verse monologues of this kind (Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is a notable example), “Frost at Midnight” is written in blank verse, a term used to describe unrhymed lines metered in iambic pentameter.
The speaker of “Frost at Midnight” is generally held to be Coleridge himself, and the poem is a quiet, very personal restatement of the abiding themes of early English Romanticism: the effect of nature on the imagination (nature is the Teacher that “by giving” to the child’s spirit also makes it “ask”); the relationship between children and the natural world (“thou, my babe! shall wander like a breeze...”); the contrast between this liberating country setting and city (“I was reared / In the great city, pent ’mid cloisters dim”); and the relationship between adulthood and childhood as they are linked in adult memory.
However, while the poem conforms to many of the guiding principles of Romanticism, it also highlights a key difference between Coleridge and his fellow Romantics, specifically Wordsworth. Wordsworth, raised in the rustic countryside, saw his own childhood as a time when his connection with the natural world was at its greatest; he revisited his memories of childhood in order to soothe his feelings and provoke his imagination. Coleridge, on the other hand, was raised in London, “pent ’mid cloisters dim,” and questions Wordsworth’s easy identification of childhood with a kind of automatic, original happiness; instead, in this poem he says that, as a child, he “saw naught lovely but the stars and sky” and seems to feel the lingering effects of that alienation. In this poem, we see how the pain of this alienation has strengthened Coleridge’s wish that his child enjoy an idyllic Wordsworthian upbringing “by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags / Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds...” Rather than seeing the link between childhood and nature as an inevitable, Coleridge seems to perceive it as a fragile, precious, and extraordinary connection, one of which he himself was deprived.
In expressing its central themes, “Frost at Midnight” relies on a highly personal idiom whereby the reader follows the natural progression of the speaker’s mind as he sits up late one winter night thinking. His idle observation gives the reader a quick impression of the scene, from the “silent ministry” of the frost to the cry of the owl and the sleeping child. Coleridge uses language that indicates the immediacy of the scene to draw in the reader; for instance, the speaker cries “Hark!” upon hearing the owl, as though he were surprised by its call. The objects surrounding the speaker become metaphors for the work of the mind and the imagination, so that the fluttering film on the fire grate plunges him into the recollection of his childhood. His memory of feeling trapped in the schoolhouse naturally brings him back into his immediate surroundings with a surge of love and sympathy for his son. His final meditation on his son’s future becomes mingled with his Romantic interpretation of nature and its role in the child’s imagination, and his consideration of the objects of nature brings him back to the frost and the icicles, which, forming and shining in silence, mirror the silent way in which the world works upon the mind; this revisitation of winter’s frosty forms brings the poem full circle.