Samuel Taylor Coleridge (21 October 1772 – 25 July 1834), described by Charles Lamb as ‘Logician, Metaphysician, bard’ had a very disquiet life which was made more tumultuous by his own sensitive and uneven temperament. He was a Jesus College, Cambridge graduate. In 1796 he brought out his first collection of his verse under the title Poems on Various Subjects. Along with Wordsworth he published The Lyrical Ballads in 1798 which marked the official beginning of the Romantic Age. As a poet much like T.S. Eliot he wrote rather little but what he wrote, he wrote superbly. Perhaps it was Coleridge who practised ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ as professed by Wordsworth. While Wordsworth decided on writing on issues which are based on country life and nature, Coleridge focused on the supernatural and his idea of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ comes from there.
About the poem –
The poem was written at Stowey in 1798. It was printed in the same pamphlet with Fears in Solitude and France: An Ode. The poem belongs to a group of poems known as Conversational Poems. It has a great autobiographical interest since it refers to the years spent by Coleridge at Christ’s Hospital almost pent ‘amid cloisters dim’ and to his resolution that his son Hartley will be brought up in entirely different surroundings where he will employ greater freedom to move about and appreciate the lovely scenes of nature. It gives a compact expression to Coleridge’s creed of nature as developed under the influence of Wordsworth. But it also suggests the view of nature he later came to develop after his estrangement from Wordsworth. The closing lines of this poem are remarkable for the vivid description of changing scenes.
The poem presents the ‘abstruser musings’ of Coleridge on a frosty night spent alone by his fireside. The poet looks around him and finds that all the inmates of his cottage have fallen asleep leaving him in perfect solitude. His little son (Hartley Coleridge) is peacefully sleeping in a cradle by his side. Complete silence prevailing all around him suddenly becomes a little oppressive for he feels that it vexes meditation instead of promoting it. For a while, his mind leaves his cottage and flies around in the world at large to discover that the sea, hill and wood are all steeped in silence and ‘the numberless goings on’ of life are suspended and are ‘inaudible as dreams’. Inside the cottage, the fire has burnt itself low. Only a small film is fluttering on the grate. This film is the only other wakeful thing there and the poet feels that a bond of sympathy exists between the two. Its movement makes it companionable. The poet, playing with his thoughts, abandons himself to random musings, interpreting ‘the puny flaps and freaks’ of the film according to his own moods.
The poet now gets into a reminiscent mood. The sight of the fluttering film takes him back to his school days spent in the Christ’s Hospital. He remembers that at school, whenever he saw this fluttering film on the gate he superstitiously believed that he would have a visitor the next day. Now after a passage about his son a gentle transition comes in the thought process. The poet says that under the influence of nature, his son will come to love all the seasons equally well. Whether the earth is covered with green verdure in the summer season or the redbreast sits on a leafless apple-tree in winter and sings its songs while the drops of water falling from the roofs of the cottages freeze into icicles that shine quietly in the quiet moonlight, his son will be fascinated by all these spectacles of nature.
When the poem begins we find Coleridge in a deep reflective mood. The inmates of his cottage being all at rest and his baby cradled peacefully by his side, he is virtually alone, and this puts him in a reflective mood. He finds the solitude a little oppressive. His mind is only half attuned to the influxes of nature. The beauty of the frost-tracery is also lost upon him. In this dead silence, ‘abstruser musings’ occupy his mind. The intellect is in command, the feelings lies dormant. The poet makes an idle toy of thought. As Humphrey House points out, at his stage the thought intrudes into the poem quite openly and disproportionately. But as he finds some companionship with the puny flaps and freaks of a thin soot-flake on the grate and becomes conscious of the baby sleeping beside him, he gains a kind of reassurance, feels more secure, and we find an exquisite blending of thought and feeling. He gets into a reminiscent mood and gives a mature poetic expression to a whole lot of common human emotions. There is a note of nostalgia in his feeling as he refers to the days he spent at Christ’s Hospital. In those days, whenever he observed the fluttering ‘stranger’ on the grate, it portended to him the visit of some
“Townman, or aunt, or . . .
. . . Were clothed alike”
The sight of his baby fills his heart with a tender gladness and he resolves that ‘thou shalt learn far other lore, And in far other scenes.’ He imagines that his son will be moulded under the healthy formative influence of nature and will come to love all seasons with their diverse natural beauties equally well. And in the closing lines, he describes these beauties. These lines are some of the finest he ever wrote. Their composition is made possible by the harmony he himself achieves with nature. We remember that in the beginning he was vexed but the tension gradually relaxes and, towards the close of the poem, he is fully at ease with himself.
Here he expresses a pantheistic view of nature which he developed under the influence of Wordsworth. He then believed that there was a divine spirit present in all objects of nature and he placed great trust in its moral and educative influence. It is the kind of belief Wordsworth expresses in poems like Tintern Abbey. Like Wordsdworth, Coleridge too wanted nature to be ‘both law and impulse’ for his son and to exert a powerful moral influence on him to kindle or restrain’. He felt that god would himself educate his son through the agency of nature:
“So shalt. . .
. . . and all things himself.”
Coleridge’s attitude towards nature was, however, greatly changed in the later years. In Dejection: An Ode, for example, he expresses an entirely different view. There he depicts nature to be cold and lifeless. It is human beings themselves, he says, who invest nature with any life they see in it. Their own moods are reflected in the various scenes of nature”
“O lady! We received . . .
. . . ours our shroud.”
Even this view of nature is hinted as in Frost at Midnight:
Methinks, its motion . . .
. . . a toy of thought.”
Coleridge observed nature very minutely. He was also capable of giving very vivid descriptions. This gave his poetry a remearkble pictorial quality. In Frost at Midnight, we find this quality reflected in the first few lines where he describes the fluttering film on the grate:
“Only that film , . . .
. . . the sole unquiet thing. . .”
The picture of Coleridge as a boy sitting in the class room, pretending to be studying because of the fear of the teacher, stealing a hasty glance at the door expecting some visitor, tears of helplessness, in his eyes, the words of his book swimming before them, is very vivid. But so far a as the vividness of description is concerned, nothing can surpass the closing lines of the poem where the poet presents the picture of the earth clothed with greenness in summer and the redbreast singing betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branches of a mossy apple tree and the invisible formation of the frost in winter:
“Whether the summer . . .
. . . to the quiet of the moon.”
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