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Frost at Midnight

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Frost at Midnight is the fortnightly poem at the moment on LibriVox. It forms a circular journey of linked thoughts, starting with the frost on the window and moving through the writer’s own thoughts, to contemplations about his baby, sleeping in his arms. Next the fluttering flame in the grate reminds him of his school days when he would day-dream while watching a similar flame. Thinking about his own past, and its hardships prompts thoughts about his baby’s future, and his determination that the infant’s future will be as good as his own past was hard, good in all seasons, including winter. And so we return to the quiet frost.

The poem is written in iambic pentameters. A long time ago I learned to scan Latin poetry, so I thought I knew about this: mixtures of spondees (DUM DUM) and dactyls (DUM DI-DI). I was stunned to find that almost every foot was a spondee or a trochee (DUM DI). When I thought about English doggerel, however, with its characteristic dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum rhythm (recall Hiawatha!) I realized that my preconceptions were just that, and that I should discard them.

But I did look through the poem, just to be sure I knew how to read it, and I found a couple of lines where an odd or archaic pronunciation would be necessary to keep the meter. For example the first two lines are

The frost performs its secret ministry
Unhelped by an wind. The owlet’s cry …

in which the word unhelped must be pronounced with three syllables instead of two to keep the meter of the line intact. Interspersed was similar, requiring four, not three syllables. Imagine me now muttering the poem with my fingers beating on the desk in time with each syllable, as I checked every single word to see whether I should say any more of them in that odd way. I found these: populous, numberless, fluttering, and articulate I said with only two syllables each; tower had only one syllable. There were a few others, but you get the picture.

The other challenge in reading the poem was to prevent myself from reading it line by line instead of in meaningful phrases.

What I’ve described makes it seem as though reading the poem was quite an effort, and you’d be right, it was. But I actually found the effort well worth it. By spending so much time on it, and thinking about how I was going to read it aloud, I found that I understood it so much better than I did on first reading. I thought at first it was a little rambling and pointless; by the end I appreciated the circular route the poet had taken, and understood his desire for his child to have a better life than he had had.

It was definitely a positive experience for me, one I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t decided to volunteer at LibriVox. In fact, even when I did volunteer I never imagined I would read poetry, and still less did I imagine that I would enjoy it. Thanks Hugh.