Monday, May 23, 2016

`What We Actually Became'

As the anniversary of his son’s death was approaching, a friend was reading Coleridge and sent me a stanza from “Frost at Midnight”:

“Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.”

Any effort to know my friend’s loss is futile and arrogant, an exercise like squaring the circle. One cannot imagine the death of a child – absence, vacuum, nullity. Coleridge sits before the fire in his parlor at Stowey, February 1798. He recalls his own childhood and imagines a future for his son, Hartley. For once, Coleridge keeps his gassiness in check. Every parent will recognize the mingling of personal past and speculative future. The poem’s emotional tension, from sadness to joyousness, is almost unbearable. My friend writes:   

“The only Romantic poet I read regularly is Keats. These few lines by Coleridge though move me immensely. God, `the secret ministry of frost’: who wouldn’t want to have written these words. And who wouldn’t wish all seasons to be sweet for one’s sleeping infant son?”

Certainly this is Coleridge’s finest moment as a poet, when he permitted himself to be a father and a man like other fathers and men, not a bloviating bore. These lines nearly redeem him. My friend acknowledges that Coleridge’s hopes for his son would remain largely unfulfilled. Hartley, he observes, would become “a rather feckless fellow,” and then continues:

“I sometimes wonder how any of us, certainly me, could bear to look the shades of our parents in their speculationless eyes, distilling in the alembic of our imaginations the chasm between what they hoped for us when we were sleeping infants and what we actually became. I know, of course, in a lot of ways we became just like them. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves—or on our parents.”

A rather dull poet, Stanley Kunitz, alludes to Coleridge’s poem, almost replicating his middle-of-the-night experience with Hartley, in “Journal for My Daughter” (The Testing Tree, 1971):

“The night when Coleridge,
bore his crying child outside,
he noted
that those brimming eyes
caught the reflection
of the starry sky,
and each suspended tear
made a sparkling moon.”

1 comment:

Stephen Pentz said...

I am not a Coleridge expert, and the Kunitz poem is new to me, but I would respectfully suggest that the source of Kunitz's lines is another "Conversation Poem" -- "The Nightingale" -- not "Frost at Midnight." Here are lines 97 through 105 of "The Nightingale"

He knows well
The evening-star; and, once, when he awoke
In most distressful mood, (some inward pain
Had made up that strange thing, an infant's dream),
I hurried with him to our orchard-plot,
And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,
Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently,
While his fair eyes, that swam with undropped tears,
Did glitter in the yellow moon-beam!"

At least two commentators have pointed out that these lines have their source in an entry by Coleridge in "the Gutch Commonplace Book," specifically:

"Hartley fell down and hurt himself. I caught him up angry and screaming -- and ran out of doors with him. The moon caught his eye -- he ceased crying immediately -- and his eyes and the tears in them, how they glittered in the moonlight!"

See: James Campbell, The Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1893), page 456; Seamus Perry (editor), Coleridge's Notebooks: A Selection (Oxford University Press 2002), page 150.

I point this out because I believe that it is another example of Coleridge as a father, and shows his tender side. Thank you.