My Babe So Beautiful

My Babe So Beautiful

This week’s poem is “Frost at Midnight” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge which I have chosen in honour of my nephew Harry’s first birthday, because it has the most beautiful passage describing Coleridge’s dreams for his baby son.

My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772—1834)
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. 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.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.
                          But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!
Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
      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 nigh 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.

Coleridge begins this poem by setting the scene. He is sitting up writing late at night, watching over his baby as it sleeps, when everyone else is asleep. Outside, it is perfectly still with no breath of wind and only the screech of an owl breaking the silence. In fact, he muses, the silence is so profound that it disturbs his train of thought. The village in which they live, so busy during the daylight hours, is incredibly quiet, and a dim flickering in the grate is the sole thing that moves other than the poet.

The dying flame starts him reminiscing about his own childhood where the slow extinction of a fire set him day-dreaming and soothed him to sleep and the freedom of his dreams. Sitting at his lessons, he would feign study as he daydreamed, unless there was a welcome interruption when he might hope to see a familiar face.

From these reflections he moves on to consider his own child, sleeping peacefully in the cot. He dwells on the bucolic childhood he wishes for his baby, contrasting this ideal with the city in which he grew up. This is a lovely passage that expresses the love we feel for our sleeping children and the hopes we have for them.

The poem closes as Coleridge returns to the moment through the thought that any season of the year will be equally sweet to one raised in this rural setting, even the quietest moments when the frost is silently adorning the cottage and its surroundings with icicles.