Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” is a conversational poem that communicates the key concerns of Romantic period poetry while at the same time reinforcing idealized family relationships as a solution to the alienation of man from his own work in the capitalist social order. Continuing the general style of the other “Conversation” poems, it immerses the reader in a cold, dark-gray world of isolation which is then stirred by meditative thought and finally colored by emerging friendships and societal relations. In the beginning of “Frost at Midnight” as well as “Dejection: An Ode” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” the narrator is alone after having been recently abandoned by family or friends and left to his own solitude. As in “Dejection,” where he exclaims: “Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind / Reality’s dark dream!” or in “This Lime-Tree,” where he says “Well, they are gone / and here must I remain,” in “Frosts at Midnight” he is portrayed as alone in a cabin by the fire (except for his infant son), lost inside his own mind.
Like his contemporary Wordsworth, Coleridge seems to have an eye for natural forces at work around him that are independent of his will, such as the “frost” performing its “secret ministry.” We see how the pains of alienation from his own work as a poet (not being able to control the production of his body of work) have brought Coleridge to see history and reality as completely outside of his control—as much out of his hands as the forces of nature itself. His separation from human connection compels him to wish that his newborn child, the “babe” beside him in the cradle, will live an ideal childhood in the countryside away from industrial capitalism. Remembering his own traumatic experiences trapped in a schoolhouse, Coleridge espouses a libertarian education method by which his son would learn from his environment according to his own creative urges. Coleridge, like Wordsworth, sees the country as a liberating force from the industrial city setting.
The contemplative mood is totalizing to the point of being suffocating: whereas “Dejection” at least expressed playfulness (if hidden nihilistic meaninglessness) in form, “Frost at Midnight” feels intense in its sheer calm, its words warded by blank verse formed in iambic parameter. More than this, its very structure and plot is intensely subjective, a living, breathing example of the creativity of the human imagination that Coleridge speaks of in the poem. As in the other works contained within “Fears in Solitude” however, it finds itself completely dependant on isolation and individual consciousness. Coleridge weaves his own world, generated by nothing more than his brainstorming unconscious and imagination.
Coleridge, like T.S. Eliot, was one of the leading purveyors of Romantic humanist subjectivity which sees the human subject as a free-floating social agent transcending the limitations of history. Emotions become absolute to Coleridge—he values human feelings over philosophical reason. His alienated struggles to overcome family rifts caused by his addiction are combined with poetic candor about the general functioning of the human imagination to wander to the future, present and past alike in a formless tapestry of thought.
The role of the individual in Coleridge is an attempt to resolve the crises of the subject during the industrial and monopoly phases of capitalism. This is not to say that the entirety of the poem amounts to nothing more than “bourgeois individualism,” but to show that the foundations of this psychology is designed to heal social conflicts but ends up perpetuating them. His emphasis on societal roles and evocation of domestic affections shows a split with the radical movement and a leaning towards more conservative beliefs. As such, Coleridge’s portrait of himself as a domestic family man may have been meant to answer criticisms of his so-called “radical” character by the press and the government.
There is no parody or mocking here: Coleridge is clearly endorsing bourgeois family values and must have been aware of the political meaning behind such terms. He ends up endorsing, of course, an institution that cannot be separated from its ideological values, or what is known as the “culture and society” tradition. Does the love of nature and the English landscape in the poem endorse nationalism, or perhaps some form of romantic humanism, the popular Romantic organicist philosophy of loving all of humanity? Such things are frustratingly ambiguous, though the lines “From east to west / A groan of accusation pierces heaven!” certainly seem to suggest that chaos is just outside the window. Here he is no longer predicting the destruction of England as a result of colonialism, slavery and imperialist war, but rather portraying himself as a humble family man, lover of peace and a believer in political liberty.
Most interestingly, there exists a “bell-curve” in “Frost at Midnight” in which the gloomy interaction between the speaker and his subjective reality begins troublingly, reaches a dramatic, climatic peak of emotion and eventually falls under the spell of the sheer wonder of the mysterious and unknowable world. Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” marks fading moments of radical thought which are afterwards called back to reality by want of a sense of order through socially acceptable norms. He offers an idealist criticism of his own society’s social relations oddly coupled with an individualist streak that defends the rights of capital, making himself instrumental for the creation of the new conservatism.
The end result of this, unlike in “Dejection: An Ode” where the speaker’s grim numbness strips him of his creative energies and leaves him in the dark of the night, is that a healing process is started where the traditional family unit attains a sense of normalcy despite the complex pressures of an industrialized society. What “Frost” shares with the other poems is the starting point of the poet’s self and the gripping feelings of loneliness. What differentiates it from “Dejection: An Ode” is that a solution is found, and what differentiates it from “Lime-Tree Bower” is that a solution to the contradiction is found outside the author’s own mind.
“Frost at Midnight,” like the other two poems, is essentially preoccupied with the contradictions and alienation rife within Coleridge’s position as a literary producer, and specifically contradictions inseparable from his relations with a cosmopolitan audience who rejected his more radical political work. In response, Coleridge has penned his most conservative work, a classic tragedy turned on its head. His mental assault against the world in all three poems is filled with distrust of the city, of bourgeois commercialism, of colonialism and of his fellow man. He is torn between the traditional family as a desirable organic unit, his repressed radical beliefs, his addictions and personal vices, the fear of industrial setting as well as his own Romantic-era nationalism. His loss of control over his own artistic capabilities is less a “natural” or “inspirational” crisis than an escapist method from European political turbulence.