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Samuel Taylor Coleridge was kind of a hippie. He wasn't actually following Phish around in a Volkswagen Bus, sporting his best tie-dyed tees and Birkenstocks—but he was doing the things Romantic Era hippies were doing at the time: supporting the French Revolution, getting into Nature, digging on alternative spirituality, etc. (Oh, and he was kind of into drugs—but more in a sad, addicted-to-painkillers kind of way, than in a stereotypical pothead-who-loves-Doritos way.) "Frost at Midnight" reflects a lot of these beliefs and concerns: a love of and longing for Nature, a back-to-the-land ethos, and a mystical sense of religion.
Given their shared hippie-ish inclinations, Coleridge and his friend William Wordsworth were poetic rebels (when they were young). They were tired of poetry that didn't speak in a normal and direct language. They wanted to switch things up, to write in a way that was closer to everyday speech. They wanted to bring it all back down to earth. Instead of saying things like, "Phoebus did retire behind the hills" they would write a line like, "The sun went down" (which means the same thing, just without a pointless allusion to Greek mythology). Their groundbreaking book, Lyrical Ballads,was published in 1798—the same year Coleridge wrote "Frost at Midnight" (which appeared in a different book)—and became famous for shaking things up this way.
People often think that "Frost at Midnight" is the best of Coleridge's "Conversation" poems. In essence, the "Conversation" poems were poems that took the form of… well, conversations (actually, monologues)—no surprise there. But these poems were radical because, even though they might seem sort of complicated today, they actually spoke to people in a more direct form of language (like Wordsworth's poetry did too): the common tongue.
Throughout the poem, Coleridge is speaking to you, the reader, without any stops and with only a few frills, and reflecting on his life. Frequently, in the Conversation Poems, Coleridge seems really depressed—having a bad marriage and being addicted to opium can definitely do that to you. But "Frost at Midnight" is one of the brighter moments. It's actually fairly optimistic, basically amounting to a prayer and a benediction for his baby son, Hartley (who himself became a poet). It's a great meditation on how the human mind relates to the cosmos around it—to Nature and (Coleridge being a Christian) to God. And those aren't just hippie concerns; they're universal.
Before (or after) reading "Frost at Midnight," you might be asking yourself, "What am I supposed to learn from this old hippie?" Well, Steve Jobs was an "old hippie" and he invented the iPod (or, actually, just helped come up with the design—but, you know, close enough). So old hippies—even two hundred and twenty-year-old hippies—still have a lot to say, sometimes. (Here, we would like to officially express our lack of prejudice against so-called "old hippies.")
Even though Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem discusses religion and Nature in an intensely intellectual way, this poem was revolutionary for a very important reason: it's just a dude talking about how he's feeling, just like he normally would. (Of course, if he was talking to you outside of the poem, in real life, he probably wouldn't be speaking in iambic pentameter).
People had discussed how they were feeling in poetry before, obviously—like, a lot. There are tons of sonnets by Shakespeare moping about indifferent lovers, for example. "Poetry" and "feelings" just go together—like emotional peanut butter and jelly. But Coleridge was doing something different. He's speaking from the heart, letting you into his thoughts as they rove and wander. The poem isn't tight and compact, it's sort of rambling… in an artistic way.
Coleridge is exploring his inner self, lying bare his thoughts and feelings as they develop. And even though he gets into some deep philosophical territory (the idea that Nature is an "eternal language" that God uses, for example), he's still speaking from the heart, expressing his real concerns and opinions. "Frost at Midnight" is meant to provoke you to do the same thing, to analyze your own relationship with Nature, the Universe, and everything else. Of course, you might have a take that's totally at odds with Coleridge. (You might love barbed wire fences but totally hate trees, for example.) But the point of the poem is to get you to reflect on those kinds of experiences, and to feel a living connection to the world around you.
Coleridge, the Bio
Coleridge endured a poignant struggle of a life, and it's worth checking out his biography to get the full details. It has everything: opium addiction, a failed attempt to join the military, chronic laziness, a bad marriage…
Coleridge, the Poems
If you want to check out more of Coleridge's work, the Poetry Foundation also has a fine database.
This is a great website with lots of information about Coleridge, related to his legacy as an artist in Victorian England.
BBC Documentary on The Romantics
Peter Ackroyd is a famous British writer in his own right. Here, he takes us on a tour of the great Romantic poets for the BBC—Coleridge very much included.
Life and Times of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This amateur documentary delves into Coleridge's childhood.
S.T.C. in T.R.A.M.
Dig this excerpt from a Coleridge bio-pic, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Richard Burton Reads "Frost at Midnight"
The great Welsh actor, Richard Burton, recites Coleridge's poem.
Nigel Planer Reads "Frost at Midnight"
And here's another reading.
Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"
Technically, this is a different (although probably more famous) Coleridge poem. But Cumberbatch, of Sherlock fame, is all the rage right now, so whatever. Here he is, reading "Kubla Khan."
Christ's Hospital in London
This is it: the place where Coleridge went to school and daydreamed all the time—while trying to avoid the headmaster's wrath.
This is the place where Coleridge lived while writing, "Frost at Midnight." It's now a popular tourist attraction.
And this is Coleridge's son, Hartley, as a young man. Unfortunately, he didn't actually live the ideal natural existence that Coleridge had planned.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Here's the man himself—fairly young, and in black and white.
Another Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Here's another picture of Coleridge—but in color this time. He also has longer hair, rocking the Romantic hippie look.
Why Coleridge? Critic Kenneth Burke has a few ideas.
Shmoop on Coleridge's Opium Addiction
Coleridge's opium addiction is so famous and important that we at Shmoop have devoted a full page to it. Check it out.
Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804
This is the first part of an epic, two-part biography of Coleridge—featuring his young, peppy and idealistic years.
Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834
The second part of Coleridge's biography focuses on the years when his opium addiction deepened, and when he turned towards theology and literary criticism.
Lyrical Ballads (1798 Version) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth
This is the original (and shorter) version of Coleridge and Wordsworth's classic book. Highlights include Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey."
The Visionary Company
Literary super-critic Harold Bloom provides an extended tour of the Romantic poets (including Coleridge, along with an in-depth reading of "Frost at Midnight" and the other major poems) in this early work.
This British indie film, directed by punk-rock fan Julien Temple, examines Coleridge's friendship with Wordsworth.