The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind.
- Right away, we find out what the "frost" from the title is doing. It's freezing stuff at midnight—that's what its "secret ministry" is.
- But what makes this a "ministry" and why is it so "secret"? The fact that the frost is doing its job "at midnight"—when everyone in the village is asleep, except for Coleridge—makes it seem fairly secret, hidden under the cover of darkness.
- The "ministry" bit is a little more complicated though. On the one hand, a "minister" is someone who performs a duty on behalf of someone else (technically, the "Prime Minister" of the United Kingdom performs the duty of running the government on behalf of the Queen or King or, more accurately today, the people). Also, Coleridge probably wants us to think of the frost's task in religious terms—somehow, it's like a Christian minister.
- Who or what does Coleridge intend us to think the frost is working for? Whose minister is the frost? Nature? God?
- Also, who's looking at this frost, and thinking about it? Anyone in particular? Coleridge himself? We'll have to read on to find out.
- The first line establishes the meter Coleridge will hold for the rest of the poem—blank verse, otherwise known as non-rhyming iambic pentameter. Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that.
The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
- It's not just frost that's out and about at this hour. A baby owl is crying out too (aww).
- Quickly, we discover the person who's observing these things—it's Coleridge, himself. How do we know? Well, for starters, we get a first person perspective ("my cottage," "left me").
- Usually, it's not a good idea to mix up our speaker with our poet, but in this case we can safely say they're one and the same. Check out "Speaker" for more on that.
- He's stayed up late (probably watching Conan) and is now listening to the sounds of Nature, while everyone else in his cottage sleeps. ("Inmates" didn't mean prisoners at the time Coleridge was writing—an "inmate" was just someone who lived in a place, like all the family members living in this cottage.)
- His solitude suits "abstruser musings" because "abstruse" ideas and concepts are, by definition, hard to understand. They're not the kinds of things you're going to chat about during the day, or while you're discussing lawn-care techniques with your neighbors. Now, though, it's quiet enough that Coleridge can have a conversation with himself—have a little "me time."
- His baby son (Hartley Coleridge) is the only person in the same room—but he's asleep.
- Coleridge keeps the tone pretty conversational—since this is, after all, one of his "Conversation Poems." Yet, he gets a certain sonic effect—assonance—from repeating the U sounds in "the solitude, which suits/ Abstruser musings." Check out "Sound Check" for more.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness.
- It's quiet—like, really quiet. Instead of making it easier to think, this actually feels kind of disturbing—it "vexes meditation." It's too quiet, in a way.
- Coleridge was known for being an extremely learned philosophical type, into reading dense German thinkers like Kant. So, staying up late and musing on these profound issues was probably one of his hobbies.
Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams!
- There's some anaphora here as Coleridge repeats "Sea, hill, and wood" (though he changes it to "Sea, and hill, and wood" the second time). It helps to emphasize how he's still marveling at the silence from the last lines. It's so quiet that none of these different nearby areas is really emanating any sounds.
- Coleridge is impressed by the fact that there are so many things going on at night—creatures out and about in the woods, people who are probably still up, the ocean moving—but they're all "inaudible as dreams." Dreams are inaudible because they're going on in someone's head.
- You can't actually hear them, unless you happen to be the person having the dream (evidently Coleridge had never seen Inception.)
- This also makes the world itself seem sort of dreamlike at night—things are happening, but they don't possess the weight of the actions that take place in broad daylight.
[…] the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
- In the extreme quietness of the night, even the fire has stopped moving—except for a film made of soot.
- Also, there's a sonic effect in putting the three syllables of "thin blue flame" and the three syllables of "low-burnt fire" so close together, since the last two syllables of each begin with the same consonants, B and F. This is an odd kind of consonance, mixed in with a tiny bit of alliteration in "that film, which fluttered." Check out "Sound Check" for more.
- So, what about this film on the grate? We're left hanging here, mid-sentence. In fact, we'll have to skip down to a whole new stanza to pick up where we leave off here.