In “Frost at Midnight,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s dissatisfaction with his boyhood spent at school in London emerges when a strangely still night invites him to recall both his school life and his happier life as a country lad, and to channeled that dissatisfaction into a resolution that his infant son will not share in Coleridge’s unhappy confinement in the city, but will grow up in the natural surroundings of the countryside. Many of the ideals and techniques of the Romantic Movement inform both the mood and the content of the poem.
The meter, largely iambic pentameter, imitates natural conversation, and imparts to the reader the calm, dreamy mood of the speaker himself as he reflects on his surroundings, his childhood, and his son. The few times the spell is broken, it is because the speaker’s thoughts are interrupted, or he is overcome with particular emotion about his youth or love for his son. The frost of the title opens the poem, quietly forming icicles upon the speaker’s cottage, “its secret ministry” (1). There is a mysterious quality to the frost—it forms secretly, almost without any sign of its doing so, and its ministry spreads this mystical sense to the night in general, and to the speaker himself. The winter night is calm and quiet, with no wind. Into this calm, the owlet’s cry is loud and surprising, emphasized by sharp breaks in diction: “The owlet’s cry / Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before” (3). The speaker is alone except for his sleeping son: “The inmates of my cottage, all at rest, / Have left me to that solitude, which suits / Abstruser musings” (4-6). Despite the connotation of “solitude” in Romantic poetry being a positive attribute, the calm of this night is almost too much for the speaker: “’Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs / and vexes meditation with its strange / And extreme silentness” (8-10). “Abstruser musings” in line 6 refers to thoughts that are concealed, or difficult to comprehend; it could be that he is trying to concentrate on something else, perhaps some difficult work he is trying to accomplish, but his meditation on it is “vexed” (9) by the stillness, and his mind wanders without a focus. His mind flits to “Sea, hill, and wood” (10) and village, with the “numberless goings on of life” (12) that fill them. The repetition of the “sea, hill, and wood” idea on lines 10 and 11 underscore their “goings on” being numberless. But these goings on are little more than mild distractions to his mind right now, and certainly do not stimulate his senses. In the coming flashback to his early youth, the sense of hearing becomes quite distinct, but these movements of village life are “Inaudible as dreams!” (13). Even the fire in his grate has burned out, no longer a source of sound or sight.
But one thing does move, and it catches his attention: “Only that film, which fluttered on the grate, / Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing” (15). This film, or piece of soot, becomes the catalyst to take his memory back to his childhood. According to Coleridge’s note, these leftover pieces of soot are called “strangers,” and may signal the arrival of a friend. One definition of the word “strange” includes the idea of something so unfamiliar or exceptional that it excites wonder. The speaker has already termed the silentness of the night “strange” (line 9), and now this piece of film is a “stranger.” And even though a piece of soot probably is not an unfamiliar sight to the speaker, in this strange night, in this strange quiet, it certainly does excite his wonder—as ordinary objects are wont to do in Romantic poetry. In fact, since it is the only thing