A poem that captures the meanderings of reflective thougt, this piece uses loose, prose-like but beautifully shaped blank verse. The poet considers nature, which in contrast with much romantic poetry shows elements that are less than ideal, even malignant. The silence of the winter night precipitates a reflection on death, and the sleeping child awakens the poet’s own childhood memories. The wandering thought suggested by these different ideas is elevated in the tidy, discrete stanzas of the poem, and offered as a way of life for the sleeping infant. The incredible beauty of the final stanza offers hope for the child but in its eery silence prevents us from forgetting the slow creep of death.
Death arrives at the start of the poem in the image of a creeping frost. The ‘ministry’ it performs might be the administering of last rites to all the noise and action of the day, or to nature itself. The ‘owlet’s cry’ sounds portentous, and the speaker’s dramatic exclamation is reminiscent of a Shakespearean soliloquy in the way it addresses the present, assuming we’ve heard the sound too. That there is something sinister in this calm is noted by the speaker, ‘vexes meditation with its strange / And extreme silentness’. The sense that frost has somehow killed nature, that nature has died, is given by the sudden contrast of ‘populous village’ and ‘goings on of life’ as the speaker tries to reassert the existence of life. In the proximity of the deathly calm to the sleeping child rests the implicit fear that a bitter winter might take its life too – this is a fear that returns at the end of the poem. The fire seems a ‘companionable form’, first because it moves as if it were living, and second because it keeps away the silent, creeping frost that threatens both poet and child.
Images and echoes recur in the poem, and serve symbolically for self-propagating thought that the poem tries to express. The fire flickers according to no movement except its own, ‘seeking of itself’, its introspective quality is made explicit by the final line of the stanza, ‘And makes a toy of Thought’. Here we are meant to see the fire as a symbol for the poet, who with his child is in another sense mirroring himself, reflecting upon an echo. That self-referential meditation ‘makes a toy of Thought’ implies reducing its value, trivializing it. Alternatively it could suggest something captivating, something to coax out thought rather than simply distract it. The supposed prophetic power of the fire to predict the arrival of a stranger perhaps refers ominously back to ‘frost’ the funereal cleric. At the same time it benevolently anticipates the childhood recollections that follow. ‘Toy’ here can therefore be taken to mean ‘catalyst’, not reducing but spurring on. The other sense of ‘toy’ as ‘distraction’ remains, however, and betrays an anxiety that thought can never reach beyond its own realm and touch reality. This anxiety resurfaces but is perhaps pacified in the poet’s image of the child in nature, ‘beneath the clouds / Which image is their bulk both lakes and shores / And mountain crags’. Thoughts like clouds work independently of the solid earth of reality, and yet are able to ‘image’ them.
The recollected childhood scene is also a kind of echo or image of the poet’s present state of meditation. Perhaps taking something from Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality, Coleridge asserts his poetic credentials by invoking a childhood spent dreaming, brooding and gazing. Yet the vision is in some respects very different from Wordsworth’s – the child is isolated from nature and from family, the figure of the ‘stern preceptor’ prefiguring perhaps the ‘ministry’ of the frost. Here the child is waiting to be freed for his own poetic ‘ministry’, hearing ‘articulate sounds of things to come’. On one level Coleridge is making a contrast and a promise that his own son will not be isolated in the same way. At the same time the allusion to another Wordsworth poem, ‘my heart leaped up’ suggests that, just as ‘the child is father to the man’, so Coleridge in his present state was in part created by those experiences of his youth.
It is impossible to read the final stanza of the poem and not be struck by its incredible beauty. The flitting rhythms that cut across the metre, ‘snow on the bare branch’, and ‘smokes in the sun-thaw’ combine with ripe and bursting sound effects, ‘eave-drops’, ‘trance of the blast’ to create vivid scenes of idealised rural life. There is an undeniable not of joy and hope that rises bubbling through the lines – hope for the poet’s child, hope for poetic inspiration and for the ‘general earth’. The final three lines bring us back to the present, out of the mind of the poet. The ‘secret, ‘silent’, ‘quiet’ nature of the present is at once benevolent and insidious – creeping through the seasons naturally but ushering in death at the same time.
This poem gives voice to an ostensibly spontaneous flow of meditations on death, life and nature. Conflicting emotions towards nature are indicated by the way the scenes change from stanza to stanza, and the association of the calm of night with death remains problematic for Coleridge to the end. The poem also asserts some of his beliefs about his young child. Despite these disparate spheres of reference, the poem comes across as complete, carefully crafted and startlingly beautiful.