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Close Critical Analysis Of Coleridge's 'Frost At Midnight'

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'Frost at Midnight' is generally regarded as the greatest of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Conversation Poems' and is said to have influenced Wordsworth's pivotal work, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey'. It is therefore apposite to analyse 'Frost at Midnight' with a view to revealing how the key concerns of Romanticism were communicated through the poem.

The Romantic period in English literature ran from around 1785, following the death of the eminent neo-classical writer Samuel Johnson, to the ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne in 1837. However, in the years spanning this period writers were not identified as exponents of a recognised literary movement. It was only later that literary historians created and applied the term 'Romanticism'. Since then, a further distinction has been made between first and second generation Romantic writers. But even within these sub-divisions there exist points of divergence. As first generation Romantics, Coleridge and Wordsworth enjoyed an intimate friendship and collaborated to produce the seminal Romantic work, Lyrical Ballads (1798). But in his Biographia Literaria (1817) Coleridge cast a critical eye over the 'Preface to the Lyrical Ballads' (1800) and took issue with much of Wordsworth's poetical theory. Such discrepancies frustrate attempts to classify Romanticism as a monolithic movement and make establishing a workable set of key concerns problematic.

In his introduction to the Norton Anthology of English Literature M. H. Abrams attempts to overcome these difficulties by identifying the 'five cardinal elements' of Romantic poetry. According to Abrams, Romantic poetry is distinguished by the belief that poetry is not an "imitation of nature" but a "representation of the poet's internal emotions". Secondly, that the writing of poetry should be "an effortless expression" and not an "arduous exercise". The prevalence of nature in Romantic poetry and what Abrams calls "the glorification of the ordinary and the outcast" are identified as two further common elements, as is the sense of a "supernatural" or "satanic presence" (Abrams, 2000, pp. 7-11). It is with regard to this elemental understanding of Romantic poetry that I will conduct my close critical analysis of 'Frost at Midnight' to examine the extent to which the poem embodies and explores the key concerns of Romanticism.

'Frost at Midnight' is a poem written without calculated adherence to established poetic conventions. Comprising four stanzas of varying length, it is written in blank verse and adopts a conversational tone. The flexibility of the meter complements the spontaneous, impulsive nature of a poem containing both personal reflection and joyous visions, and further illustrates Abrams's claim that Romantic poetry should be an 'effortless expression' rather than an 'arduous exercise'. As an account of the speaker's present, past, and future circumstances, George Dekker has argued that the poem utilises a typically Romantic structure:

The persona digresses from a carefully established scene to a former time and contrasting situation, then back to the present before moving into the future vision of prayer. (Dekker, 1978, p. 235)

By its use of such a structure 'Frost at Midnight' also illustrates Abrams's observation that Romantic poetry should be less an 'imitation of nature' than a 'representation of the poet's internal emotions'. Contrary to the neo-classical emphasis on observation and objective knowledge, the speaker of 'Frost at Midnight' uses nature as the stimulus to turn inward. His perceptions transport him on a journey through memory and imagination and ultimately to a moment of personal insight. In 'Frost at Midnight', Coleridge highlights the Romantic conviction that the poet's role is not to hold a mirror up to nature but to use the fountains of memories and feelings which nature evokes to create something valuable and uniquely individual.

The personification of natural phenomena is pervasive throughout Romantic poetry. In the opening line of the poem the speaker personifies the frost by imbuing it with intention: "The Frost performs its secret ministry" (Wolfson and Manning, 2003, pp. 562-63, line 1). Later in the poem, he personifies a film of soot flapping on the grate of the fire:

Methinks, its motion in the hush of nature

Gives it dim sympathies with me who lives,

Making it a companionable form (lines 17-19).

Such instances are effective in illustrating the Romantic precept that the seemingly familiar or innocuous aspects of nature can still fill the viewer with awe - an example of the 'glorification of the normal' as described by Abrams. Coleridge is informed by a distinctly Romantic sensibility, one which takes issue with Samuel Johnson's assertion that "all wonder is the effect of novelty upon ignorance" (Abrams, 2000, p. 11). Instead, Coleridge's speaker meditates with wonder upon such an ordinary thing as soot. As he does so he transforms the film into a friend and liberates the focus of the poem from the immediate confines of the cottage to the more promising realm of memory and imagination.

The speaker of 'Frost at Midnight' displays a characteristic reverence for nature - possibly the essential concern of Romanticism. In pious tones, he describes the "far other scenes" where his son will pass his boyhood "By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags/ Of ancient mountain" (lines 55-56). But it is not simply by the use of such grandiose language describing the topography of nature that nature is represented in the poem. By recalling his own upbringing in the city, the speaker further juxtaposes this reverent portrait of nature with the desolate urbanity of the city:

For I was reared

In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,

And saw naught lovely but the sky and stars,

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze

By lakes and sandy shores (lines 51-55)

Coleridge's word choice here is significant. By juxtaposing the confines of the 'dim cloisters' of the city with a description of his son 'wandering like a breeze' the sense of freedom and light which nature brings to human

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