Feb 15, 2011

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Frost at Midnight" : Solitude and Creativity

In the spirit of yesterday’s talk about poetry and art as more selfless, solitary activities than they seem to be in these days of bountiful M.F.A. programs and writers’ conferences, here is one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s major poems, “The Frost at Midnight.”

Frost at Midnight by Samuel Taylor Coleridge : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

I’d intended to post Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp,” in which the central metaphor is a stringed instrument that sits in a window, inviting the breeze to play upon its strings. So an Eolian harp poses a literal and a symbolic question central to Romanticism: who or what is making the music? The human who designed the harp and placed it there? The harp itself, unmanned? Or the wind?—which of course can be one of the gentlest or mightiest forces in the nature the Romantics so wholly revered.

In re-reading “The Eolian Harp,” however, I found it just too full of itself. Hamlet's line came to mind: "Words, words, words." I think “The Frost at Midnight” is a far more beautiful, elegant, and simply better poem. And like “The Eolian Harp,” it celebrates quiet observation, sitting back, noticing an infant, noticing the midnight hour and the world outside, letting the mind drift beyond rationality and consciousness into free association and the sleeping or waking dream states the Romantics valued so much. I've heard some of today's poets say that Witnessing means paying attention, really, really paying attention." The intent of the comment is to honor the act of witnessing. I like that, all of it.

A central concern of the English Romantics (1798 – 1830, give or take) was the extent to which the poet, or simply the human, could and should lie back in passiveness, give up the awareness of and attachment to Self, let Nature wash dreamily over him and fully experience the comingling of the human with the “one soul within us and abroad,” as Wordsworth called it.

That's somewhat similar to witnessing, and it raises a question from yesterday’s post: How important is the human? I remember one professor’s position: the first, older generation of Romantics—Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge—could not part with, surrender themselves and their self-awareness the way their younger followers, Keats, Shelley, and Byron did. Keats, for example, seems entirely ready to leave his earthly self to join the eternal life he sees on the Grecian Urn or hears in the song of the nightingale; however, he cannot sustain the required act of imagination.

More tomorrow or soon. In case I end up changing it for some reason, here is the concluding sentence I plan for that post:

When wine, cheese, clatter and flattery enter the room, good thinking, talking, and writing run the other way.

Talk about self-indulgence and self-importance! But aren't I just smelling the roses? And I am a rose. Aren't you?



Anonymous said...

I'm going to swing by a second time and read the second poem, because I love all things Coleridge. But first I had to argue -- the Eolian Harp has always meant one thing to me -- We're each strung and tuned just differently enough to play our own song of life. The universe has never heard our song before, and never will again. (Of course, this was written before cloning, yet still...)

Words, words, beautiful words.

Banjo52 said...

AH, never thought of it that way, but it's consistent with the Romantics' focus on the individual.

Jean Spitzer said...

I read your essay and the poem and ended up with a detour to Sara Coleridge: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1540629/Coleridges-daughter-hid-her-poetic-passions.html

Brenda's Arizona said...

The poem... it is coming alive as I read it. The silence of midnight - the first stanza makes me promise myself to stay awake until midnight tonight, to be the only one in the house awake at that hour. And I will look for the one item that makes a toy of thought.

The bells of the church clock - do any big churches still ring hourly bells? Have you ever thought that the bells' song is only song a poor man might hear?

Solitude and creativity - great subtitle, Banjomyn!

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, you are one interactive reader! Good stuff. Thanks.

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