The Supernatural in Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”

Though not usually thought of as one of his “supernatural” poems, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” uses supernatural elements to allow Coleridge access to a sub-rational and extra-sensual realm which transcends time and the laws of nature, in order to better understand himself and examine the relationship between the imagination, perception, and nature.

At work in “Frost at Midnight” are several supernatural elements of a more “every day” type than those evident in “Kubla Khan” or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which rather than eclipsing reality, intertwine with and heighten it. The first of these which is the titular frost, whose “secret ministry” (1) begins and ends the poem. According to Merriam Webster, one of the definitions of “supernatural” is anything “attributed to an invisible agent,” which the unseen agency behind the Frost is. That the frost accomplishes its duties “unhelped by any wind” (2) emphasizes its independence and power for self-activation, which Coleridge develops over the length of the poem to turn the frost into a symbol for the force of the imagination and its transformational power.

Perhaps the most evident supernatural element in the poem is the “stranger,” the “film, which fluttered on the grate” (15) of the fireplace, which provides the link between Coleridge’s present and his past, bridging the gap across time with associated memory. It is the stranger which allows Coleridge to gain access to his sub-rational mind and it is the stranger which guides his thoughts as he transcends time and space to follow its flutterings. The stranger is “the sole unquiet thing / … in this hush of nature” (16-17) Coleridge tells us, removing it from the sphere of nature’s laws and simultaneously imbuing it with just human-enough characteristics (aided by the personification of its name) to allow it to take on the mythic role of guide and “companionable form” (19) on the journey into Coleridge’s own subconscious. The stranger guides Coleridge’s “idling Spirit” (20) to “make a toy of Thought” (23) as it bypasses rational, causal thinking and tries to bend reality to itself: “every where / Echo or mirror seeking of itself” (21-22). It is the association of Coleridge’s thought with the supernatural element of the stranger which allows him to be transported back through time to his childhood memories of school—of sitting in a classroom, eyes transfixed upon “that fluttering stranger” (26), the demonstrative pronoun implying that it is the self-same stranger that Coleridge sees in the past and the present as it transcends time and space to bridge his thoughts. In his memory, the stranger serves a second supernatural purpose in triggering the boy Coleridge to dream “with unclosed lids” (27) of  “the old church-tower / Whose bells … rang / … / So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me / With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear / Most like articulate sounds of things to come!” (28-33). His dreamlike visions of his “sweet birth-place” (28) are given in these lines an ethereal quality, making them seem as if they are of another world—which the boy Coleridge most likely felt they were, sitting in a school “pent ’mid  cloisters dim” (52). The bells become a similar supernatural symbol to the stranger, allowing the boy Coleridge deeper access into his subconscious, while at the same time “haunt[ing]” him with their “sounds of things to come” and, like the stranger, giving the hopeless boy a future to look forward to. With the stranger there is always the anticipation that it may bring about a visit from his aunt or sister; with the bells, what he anticipates is less clear, though whatever visions the bells bring are “soothing” (34) and, if only momentarily, lighten his burden and give him hope.

Coming out of his reverie, Coleridge does not, however, leave the supernatural behind, but rather brings it out into the natural world with him, as he turns his thoughts once more to imaginative power, equating it once again with the transformational forces of an active nature as he apostrophizes his sleeping son: “thou … shalt wander like a breeze / … / shalt thou see and hear / Of that eternal language” (54, 58-60). Here he urges his son towards a supernatural understanding of the natural as extending beyond the realm of the five senses and the rational to a pantheistic, time-transcendant (“eternal”), unifying vision of the inseparability of nature, man, and imagination. The poem ends with one last supernatural vision, this time of a nature without temporality, in which the seasons are mixed, winter with summer, as they unify to be “sweet” (65) to the poet’s son. The image of the “eaves-drops” (70) caught between melting and falling to earth and being hung up once more by “the secret ministry of frost” (72) ends the poem  with an imagined vision, hearkening back to the opening image of the ministry of frost, but with the added supernatural element of not only time still, but time transcended, as, in that moment of anticipation before the drop freezes or falls, there is a possibility of the future held in suspension, just as there was the for the boy Coleridge listening to the church bells in his home town. It is that supernatural element of the bending and transcending of time by imaginative vision or supernatural symbols which allows Coleridge to enter into a sub-rational realm of contemplation and imaginative power wherein he can come to better understand himself and his relation with a pantheistic nature.

“my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower”

frost-churchtower-wilson

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