Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The secret ministry of frost

     A fine, frosty morning dawned Monday, and Kitty and I took an extra few turns on our morning ramble to inspect nature's fleeting handiwork. 
      Frost could use some PR. As far as precipitation goes, it doesn't get anywhere near the attention of its more voluminous brethren, rain, snow, hail or even fog. 
      Perhaps because frost inconveniences no one. No one ever said, "I'd love to go, if it weren't for this darn frost." The most powerful punch frost delivers comes as metaphor, for creeping age and death.
      It used to be called "hoar frost," though that term would only confuse people if used in conversation nowadays, as it would no doubt be heard as "whore frost," and imagined to be perhaps a colorful antique term for some symptom of venereal disease.
     "Hoar" means a grayish white, usually relating to hair—we speak of people being "hoary with age"—and I noticed Monday this little display of flattop hairiness on the frost atop our Weber grill, a quality associated with frost. Bowditch's American Practical Navigator, if nothing a book of fine distinctions, defines frost as "more fluffy and feathery than rime which in turn is lighter than glaze."
     Frost forms first on metal easiest because metal cools quickly, and frost is a phenomenon of cold drawing out moisture from the air.  Frost is really just frozen dew, the condensation that forms when the temperature drops and the air can no longer hold the water that's evaporated within it. The night before had been clear with little wind, perfect conditions for forming frost, a situation that Samuel Taylor Coleridge refers to in his beautiful ode to his son, "Frost at Midnight," whose opening lines are, "The Frost performs its secret ministry/Unhelped by any wind."
       When Coleridge wrote that, frost already was well-freighted with symbolic value.
  Six years before Coleridge used frost as a somber frame around his son's new life, Robert Burns had written, in "Highland Mary" in 1792, "But, oh! fell death's untimely frost/That  nipt my flower sae early." The habit frost has for killing plants — in full evidence Monday, as a purple Persian shield I had meant to whisk into the house was turned black from the cold — was transferred to human.  Shakespeare wrote of "An envious sneaping frost," in"Love's Labor Lost," "That bites the first-born infants of the spring." ("sneap" is an archaic term for a rebuke, what we'd now call a "snub.")
     Just as it is winter that makes the springtime so sweet, so it is death that makes our lives so precious. At the ending of "Frost at Midnight," Coleridge places all his good wishes upon the cradle before him, while pushing away thoughts of frost and its friend, " the sole unquiet thing" stalking us all. 
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.
     For writers, there is a parting lesson here in the value of revision. Coleridge re-wrote this poem at least seven times, changing what had originally been "the secret ministry of cold" to "the secret ministry of frost," which just sounds more poetic. Indeed, that's perhaps the best way to think of frost: as poetic cold.

Frost, left.


  1. Darling dog and beautiful verse. Thanks for the reminder on some of the Lit. class prose that I had almost forgotten.

  2. "Frost's habits for killing plants"....this phrase puzzled me for a few seconds until I realized the capitalized Frost in this case did not refer to the poet.

    1. The funny thing is, when I read this in 2023, I made the same mistake. I'll fine tune it to avoid that.

  3. I can see that -- I never thought about Robert Frost, not once, writing this, which is odd, because I like him, a lot.

  4. A lovely reverie on something fleeting usually ignored.

    I recalled with fondness "Highland Mary," but not the Coleridge, and was driven to Wikipedia to read the whole thing. Recommended.

    "Trances" is an odd word. Still used, but usually in fiscal matters. And in France. One wonders if it held other meanings for Coleridge.

    At least close to the lake, we're entering the season for fog, another fleeting phenomenon that has lent inspiration to poets. Perhaps another early morning ramble will make it a fitting subject.

    Nice to see that hero dog is still in the picture.

    Tom Evans

    1. I too was drawn, to Wikipedia, to read "Frost at Midnight". Lovely.

    2. "I leant upon a coppice gate
      When frost was Specter grey" Thomas Hardy.

  5. Lovely essay. And if you pulled all those literary references out of your hat, terrific memory!

    By the way, is that a high school or grammar school? Pristinish, isn't it?


    1. Greenbriar Elementary, my kids alma mater. Though the new gym wasn't there when they attended. Excellent place. I live a block away, and not by accident.

    2. Oh, and no, I had never read the poem until yesterday. Don't want to put on airs. I discovered it researching literary references to "frost." My initial plan was to count them, then compare them to references to "rain" in Bartlett's, a scheme quickly abandoned, thank God.

  6. Yes, certainly better looking than schools and grounds in some areas.

  7. Well you get what you pay for in property taxes.

  8. Frost provides the final moment for flowers, frozen in perfection before the sun rises and they wilt/fold into death. It's as beautiful as damning.

  9. Yesterday's post about Patricia Smith made me think that I know very little about poetry other than some limericks about a man from Boston and a high school recollection of Coleridge's "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree...". So today's post about frost and Coleridge was a nice continuation to my stream of thought. The best thing is that it resurrected memories of eating breakfast in our kitchen as a kid and examining the wonderful frost patterns that developed over night on our windows during winter. I would try to melt them with the heat of my palms despite my mom's warnings that it could break the window pane. Thanks for stirring my memory. I've been smiling all day.


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