Study Guide

Frost at Midnight Themes

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  • Family

    In "Frost at Midnight," Coleridge is concerned with one specific family member: his infant son, Hartley Coleridge. Everyone else is asleep in the cottage, and Hartley is the only person in the room with Coleridge, as his thoughts bounce around, gradually concluding in his high hopes for Hartley. Specifically, he wants lil' H. to grow up close to Nature, having the kind of spiritually-inspired childhood Coleridge wanted to have (but didn't, because he had to go to school in London). Also, Coleridge reflects on how he wished different family members (like his sister, Ann) would pay him a surprise visit while he was stuck in school. We know: isn't that sweet?

    Questions About Family

    1. How would you describe Coleridge as a dad?
    2. Do you agree with Coleridge that it's better to raise kids in Nature than in the city?
    3. If you happen to read up on Hartley's later life, do you still think Coleridge's ideas held up (if you thought they held up in the first place)?
    4. Is it significant that the "stranger" Coleridge is imagining is actually someone he knows? Is there any greater symbolism to this?

    Chew on This

    Family is the most important thing to Coleridge, even more important than Nature.

    Actually, Coleridge is just "using" poor lil' Hartley here. His real focus is on Nature; his son is just a hook to get us interested in the natural world.

  • Happiness

    Smile, folks. Happiness is a huge part of Coleridge's poem. For him, it needs to have a spiritual solution. Genuine joy comes with encountering God in Nature. It's not something that comes from playing Grand Theft Auto VIII, or blowing up aliens' heads in a virtual reality simulator (though plenty of people would beg to differ). Coleridge reflects on the roots of his own unhappiness and melancholy—his distance and alienation from Nature in his childhood—and hopes that his son will find a pathway to something better. Ultimately, happiness doesn't come from exerting your willpower over people or desiring more distractions. Rather, in Coleridge's view it comes from appreciating reality and from cultivating personal relationships with friends and family.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. Does Nature have the ability to make us happier? Would we all enjoy life more if we lived in touch with it—or not?
    2. Is there a difference between the happiness we get from eating a corndog and the happiness we get from being in Nature or spending time with someone we love? If there is, what might that be, and why?
    3. Is Coleridge happy? What impression does the poem give you?

    Chew on This

    Despite his efforts to convince us otherwise, it's pretty clear that our speaker isn't a happy person.

    The fact that he can recognize and name a true source of happiness (the natural world) is an indication that our speaker is more authentically happy than most (expect, you know, maybe Pharrell).

  • Isolation

    Sure, it sounds bad, but isolation isn't really a bad thing in "Frost at Midnight." A better term might be "solitude." By being alone at night (except for his sleeping baby) Coleridge is able to attain deep insights, while reflecting on his past, his relationship with Nature, and his baby's future. He wishes for his son to experience solitude in Nature, but that won't really be solitude, since his son will be able to sense God in Nature, to feel a sense of companionship when he seems to be isolated.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Is there a difference between "isolation" and "solitude"? If so, what might that be? 
    2. Is Coleridge's aloneness mainly beneficial? What about the isolation he felt in school as a child?
    3. Do you enjoy spending time alone (whether in Nature or not)? Why or why not? How do your reactions compare with Coleridge's?

    Chew on This

    Coleridge is not truly alone in this poem, and he doesn't truly feel that isolation is anything worth pursuing.

    Coleridge's love of Nature is really just a way for him to escape his fellow man, drop out of society, and be totally alone in the world.

  • Man and the Natural World

    In "Frost at Midnight," Coleridge views Nature as a source of wisdom for humanity. What he wasn't able to find in his boring classroom, he thinks his son will be able to find in Nature. Humans have made everything in the city, but God has made everything in Nature, which, in Coleridge's view, makes it a superior source of instruction and knowledge. Even if something in Nature seems unpleasant or weird or mildly creepy or hostile to life—like the frost, arguably—it is still testifying to God's creative power. Since God has "all things in himself," says Coleridge, people should be able to find evidence of God in all things.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Is Nature as benevolent as Coleridge paints it as being? Is there a darker, less divine side to Nature?
    2. Is Nature enough? Can it teach us everything we need to know? Or is there something that human beings provide that Nature can't?
    3. Does Nature express truths about God, in your opinion?
    4. Can we actually find happiness, no matter which of the four seasons it is? Do they all have something to say? Or are there any seasons that you find really unappealing?

    Chew on This

    With the rise of human civilization, the Natural world is just an invention, an idea spread though works of art like this very poem.

    Oh, really? Try this on for size: there can never be a real separation from Nature. This poem shows us that, even in the supposed confines of human civilization, humanity is smack dab in the middle of the natural world.

  • Spirituality

    Coleridge is deeply religious, but—thanks to his opium addiction and his other difficulties (like his unhappy marriage)—he thinks he hasn't fully lived up to his spiritual ideals. (Opium addiction will do that, you know.) He's hoping that his son will live up to his own lost promise and have the kind of spiritually-fulfilling life that he hasn't really been able to appreciate. God is, in Coleridge's eyes, wholly loving and benevolent. He wants human beings to enter into a relationship with him. In "Frost at Midnight," Coleridge is hoping that Nature provides the key to developing that relationship.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. What is Coleridge's attitude towards God? Is it a familiar religious attitude, do you think, or is it different?
    2. What does God teach human beings through Nature (according to Coleridge)? How are they supposed to respond to this lesson?
    3. What might are some different things in Nature that, in Coleridge's view, can tell us about God—like the frost, for example, or the changing of the seasons? What might these things say?

    Chew on This

    This poem is actually evidence that Coleridge is having a spiritual crisis of faith.

    This poem shows us that all love of Nature is really a spiritual love for a higher power (deep, eh?).