In his poem "Frost at Midnight," Coleridge
laments his unease with the extreme solitude of the countryside
, feeling that it prevents more than encourages clear thinking
. He longs to be able to take inspiration
from such stillness, but can only brood over the calm restlessly. His mind fixates on such images
as the soot
on the fire-grate, bringing him back to the times in his childhood
when he was similarly restive. However, through his moodiness
he sees the hope he can have in his child, who he can bring up to appreciate the quietness of late night in rural solitude
At first, Coleridge mentions his child in his description of his aloneness only because he is the only relief to his solitude. This relief is limited because the "cradled infant slumbers peacefully." (line 7) All the rest of the world seems to have disappeared or is asleep like the infant, unable to provide Coleridge with the human response he needs to his thinking process. Instead of inspiring his creativity, Nature is too calm, "so calm, that it disturbs and vexes meditation with its strange and extreme silentness." (8-10) Nature's ability is to amplify a person's emotions, and because Coleridge is in a lonely, restless mood, he becomes more and more restless. Unable to domesticate his creative powers, his mind wanders and settles on the fire in the grate, especially the little flakes of soot, the "film", that fly out of it. He describes the soot as something "whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit by its own moods interprets, everywhere echo or mirror seeking of itself, and makes a toy of Thought," (20-23) and in doing so he is really describing his own state of mind.
This image brings to mind his childhood at school in "the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim" (52), when he would sit unproductively before his homework, staring at the film at the grate, just as he is doing now. He would daydream, imagining that the soot really prophesied what it was said to, that is, the visit of a friend. He would wait, alert for the opening of the door (all the while fooling the preceptor by pretending to be studying) which might reveal some visitor for him, "townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved" (42) who could relieve him from the tedium of his schoolwork. It seems he does not outgrow his lack of concentration on his work, and he sits in his cottage as an adult, stubbornly facing uncompleted work, hampered by his lack of motivated creativity. His mind wanders, he repeats thoughts: "Sea, hill, and wood…Sea, and hill, and wood…" (10-11), and he stares blankly into the fire. His nature has been set since he was younger; there is no improving himself now.
However, he believes that he can nurture his infant son to be someone who can stand to sit by himself and be creative even while alone and silent. What saves Coleridge is this hope he has for his son. His "gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm, fill up the interspersed vacancies" (45-46) between his own thoughts, and he is propelled into imagining his son's future, in which he "shalt wander like a breeze by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds…see and hear the lovely shapes and sounds intelligible of that eternal language." (54-60) His son, raised amid the inspirations of and encouraged to appreciate and build on Nature, will be able to channel his creative powers to purposeful accomplishment, an improvement on his father.
Although Coleridge is in anguish over his own blocked creativity, he takes comfort in the promise of "(his) babe so beautiful" (48), that his son will take the gifts the father possesses and put them to good use. For him, his son is a whole other lifetime to be lived, for "(he) shalt learn far other lore, and in far other scenes" (49-51). Coleridge himself will teach the boy the love of Nature; he will instill in him the belief that beneath the openess of the sky and in the solitude of the countryside comes the most productive creativity. To the frustrated poet, the infant offspring embodies another chance for Coleridge, some Coleridge, to make good on the potential he knows he has but cannot control enough to realize.