Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Frost at Midnight

 In the lockdown I've been paying more attention to art.  I've listened to a lot more music, I've read more fiction, and I've read more poetry.  I found a collection called Poems that Make Grown Men Cry:  100 Men on the Words that Move Them.  It's pretty good.  The editors asked various men to identify a poem that made them cry and to explain why.  They then put the explanations and the poems into the book.

One of the poems is "Frost at Midnight," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Coleridge was both a poetic genius and a drug addict, and his career has a Rock God quality to it.  At his best, very few poets in English can match him.  In 1798, when he was 26 years old, he wrote a poem about his baby daughter.  Here's how it begins:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind.  The owlet's cry
Came loud -- and hark, again! loud as before.
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.

So there he is, sitting up at night, in the middle of winter, watching his baby daughter while she sleeps, and thinking about his life.  If you are the father of a daughter, you know what that's like.  Coleridge then reflects on the meaning of life, and of his own childhood, before coming back to his daughter.  All of this takes awhile.  Finally, he thinks about how he grew up in London, "the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,/And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars."  However, he plans to raise his daughter in the country.  So, like all fathers of daughters, he promises that she will live better than he did.  And with that thought, the poem really takes off, before eventually coming back to the frost:

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.

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 nigh 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.

Here's the thing.  I have had all of those thoughts.  I have sat up at night with my sleeping children, and felt the great ambitions roiling and roaring inside of me.  But I could never figure out how to phrase them.  So I'm really glad that Coleridge did.  That's what poetry does.  And that's why it can make grown men cry.


  1. For me art is about making connections. Whether it's music, writing, painting, sculpting, etc. When I can connect the art to my own experiences that's when it really clicks for me.

  2. In the pandemic the only art I've been paying more attention to is Hamilton. Man, I love that thing. So great to be able to connect with my daughter and wife on it.

    I don't remember that I had actually ever read anything by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, so thanks for introducing me to him.