Close critical analysis of Coleridges 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 embodie...

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...the imagination, whereby ordinary things are presented to the mind in an unusual way" (Wolfson and Manning, 2003, p. 356). Finally, in the course of contrasting his own childhood with the upbringing he imagines for his child, the speaker makes a typically Romantic connection between the natural and the supernatural worlds. This is perhaps the key concern of the poem as it is explored and related to the Romantic belief that nature is the best teacher. On this point Abrams's elemental understanding of Romantic poetry seems insufficient. However, this is perhaps significant in highlighting the difficulties involved in defining Romanticism as a coherent literary movement.

Brian Hamill


Abrams, M. & Greenblatt, S. 2000. The Norton Anthology of English Literature 7th ed. Vol. 2. London: Norton.

Day, A. 1996. Romanticism. London: Routledge.

Dekker, G.1978. Coleridge and the Literature of Sensibility. London: Vision Press.

Mileur, J. 1982. Coleridge and the Art of Immanence. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wolfson, S. & Manning, P. 2003. The Longman Anthology of English Literature Vol 2: The Romantics and their Contemporaries. London: Longman.

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