Coleridge, "Frost at Midnight"

Structure and Style

Return to Contexts

Style / Structure

Style: general note

In this frame, the first verse paragraph of the poem (lines 1-23) has been annoted in some detail. The reader may wish to examine the remainder of the poem for other features similar to those discussed here (metre, alliteration or assonance, ellipsis, metaphor, etc.). The poem is generally known as one of Coleridge's "Conversation Poems," which seems to suggest an easy, informal tone. The informality actually conceals a number of subtle and interesting stylistic effects, some of which are noted in this account. While pointing to such features it is import to show their relation to the meaning of the poem: this has been attempted here.


1. The Frost performs its secret ministry.

A complex metaphor: it animates the frost, which performs, and gives it a hidden role, a "secret ministry." This anticipates the speaker's later complaint that nature is inaudible (line 13); it may also be contrasted with the open ministry of God through nature (line 60) in which Hartley will participate.

2. Abstruser musings.

Several repeated vowel sounds (assonance) are noticeable in these lines: first the e-sounds in "all at rest, / Have left me," which seems to widen the distance between Coleridge and the other inmates of the cottage; then " that solitude, which suits / Abstruser musings," with its four repeated u sounds, emphasizing the narrowness of the speaker's abstract thoughts.

3. save that at my side.

Save here means "except that." However, it may have a more subtle connotation, that of being saved or rescued. The poem suggests that Coleridge himself may be in need of saving from something.

4. And extreme silentness.

Note the parallel constructions here across the line endings: "disturbs / And vexes"; and "strange / And extreme." This helps to intensify the sense of the calm as a signal that something is amiss. A phrase run across a line ending in this manner is technically known as an enjambment.

5. Inaudible as dreams!

Several features here coverge to express the speaker's surprise and sense of disturbance, including the repeated phrase "Sea, and hill, and wood." The lines are elliptical, that is, a word has been dropped (e.g., the "goings-on seem / Inaudible as dreams!"). The metre is disrupted in the line: "With all the numberless goings-on of life," with only four stresses instead of the expected five ("With all the numberless goings-on of life"), and the four unstressed syllables in "numberless goings." Taken together, these features underline the sense of life going on beyond the speaker's perception. The striking phrase (a simile), "Inaudible as dreams!" raises the question, whose dreams? The dreams clearly cannot be those of Coleridge.

6. the thin blue flame.

The words seem to call for three strong stresses, thin blue flame, emphasizing the stillness of the flame (in contrast to the film that is mentioned next).

7. still flutters there.

There are three uses of f here (alliteration), which supports the sense of movement of the film. The alliteration reappears at lines 19 and 20 with "form," and "puny flaps and freaks."

8. Making it a companionable form.

In the three lines beginning with "Methinks" in line 17, m occurs seven times, including three times within a word. The self-reflective tone of this passage, with its "Methinks," and the association of the m-sound with humming, indicates a degree of regression. There is a certain consolatory, wishful thinking in the speaker's response to the film.

9. Echo or mirror seeking of itself.

Note that in describing the "film" Coleridge avoids animating it: its movement is described in neutral terms as "motion" and as "puny flaps and freaks." It is clear that in endowing it with "dim sympathies" his attempt to make a companion of the film is only a fantasy, a "toy of Thought." The distance of this activity from "proper" or serious thought is shown by his use of capitalization in "Thought." However, the "echo or mirror" can also be seen as a parody of the Romantic act of imagination, which (in Wordsworth's well-known phrase from "Tintern Abbey") "half-creates" what it perceives. Compare lines 63-4.




The poem begins with a perception in the present moment. In a number of Coleridge's poems, including this one, the departure point is given by some occurrence of the moment -- a thought, a feeling, a perception. Here, Coleridge's thought appears to have been disrupted by the "owlet's cry" which came once, and now is heard again. As the speaker's reflections unfold, it becomes apparent that he is disturbed by the silence around him that the owlet's cry has only served to intensify. Since the present moment has become so dissatisfying -- the fluttering film only appears to provide company -- Coleridge seems to seek a reason for his sense of disturbance. The structure of the poem takes shape from this sensed problem.

The film, or stranger, reminds him that he used to gaze at the same feature on the grate of the fire in his schoolroom as a child. In this way he is led to seek reasons in the past for his disturbance in the present. The structure of the poem thus emerges from the time epochs that Coleridge uses. The poem begins in the present, with Coleridge in his cottage at midnight. In the second verse paragraph it moves to the past, as Coleridge reflects on his schooldays. In fact, in this section he engages in a memory within a memory: he tells us that he used to daydream about his home village (Ottery St. Mary in Devon), where the sound of the church bells filled him with excited anticipation. The cause of his disturbance now, his sense of separation from the village and from nature, may have something to do with the separation in childhood from his home village in this exile to school and to the city.

The consideration of his own unhappy childhood leads Coleridge to reflect on the baby sleeping next to him: at least he can ensure that Hartley will not experience the same exile from nature. He will wander through an (imagined) Lake District, perceiving the language that God utters through nature. Thus the poem, after a brief pause in the present, launches on a vision of the future, where it continues to develop until the end.

While Hartley is assured that "all seasons shall be sweet to thee," one might wonder whether Coleridge himself has received any reassurance for his own initial sense of disturbance. The poem seems to end where it began, with the frost's "secret ministry" now apparently reconstrued as a part of the divine language of Nature. But this is nature's gift to Hartley, not to Coleridge, who perhaps remains firmly in the present.