A Light in Winter
On March 16, 2002, when daffodils were swaying in the slowly warming wind of a North Carolina spring, I found myself in a snug hospital room with my wife and just-born daughter, only hours old, and I thought of ice.
A poem called Frost at Midnight, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was on my mind. In this verse, written in 1798, Coleridge sits near his infant son, Hartley, on a winter night in England. He recalls events from his troubled life, one fraught with chronic miseries ranging from melancholy to botched love to opium addiction to writer’s block. With a fervor usually reserved for prayer, the poet envisions a life for his son free of these problems—a vibrant, creative existence. Coleridge then asks nature itself to nurture his parental hope, invoking the potency of green summer but also, and especially, the winter’s “secret ministry of frost,” “quietly shining to the quiet moon.”
As a college professor, I had been teaching Frost at Midnight for year and had decided, soon after my wife became pregnant, to read the poem to commemorate our baby’s birth. And so I did recite the poem to our girl—we named her Una—hoping, like Coleridge, that her life would be perennially blessed by leaves and ice alike, by summery days but also by the chilly periods when she would most need strength.
What intrigued and moved me about the poem was its curious suggestion that gloom and loneliness might actually cultivate a sort of luminous affection. Forlorn most of his life, Coleridge was acutely aware of the bliss of human connection. Had he led a life free of suffering he might have never realized the wondrous fullness that comes during a father’s watch over his child’s midnight sleep.
To be hollow with longing is to be suffused with love. The thirsty person best knows water. Wounded hearts realize the essence of healing.
These are Coleridge’s exhilarating and strangely hopeful conclusions. They are optimistic because they envision a world in which suffering, inevitable and pervasive as gravity, is not meaningless but rather a source of wisdom. Even in the darkest hell, there persists a consoling light, a light that pulsates all the more forcibly against its murky background. I held this hope high the day my girl was born, knowing that she, no matter how adept, would necessarily undergo failure, frustration, los and confusion.
Maybe these challenging episodes would push her to explore her life with more honesty, to assess with more rigor her strengths and weaknesses, and thus to discover useful truths unavailable in her more contented moments.
Only months after that March day in the hospital, I sat in my study preparing for a class on Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and heard Una in another room gurgle and coo and then cry. I thought about how she would soon grow too old to play with me and then become too jaded to care about me and then leave home for somewhere else and only very seldom come back. I suddenly felt sadder than I ever had before. I felt the pain of losing her and the wonder of loving her. I adored her more for her imminent going. This wasn’t happiness, and it wasn’t pleasure. It was a more profound and durable experience, a moment encompassing both tragedy and euphoria, a child lost and a child found.
C. S. Lewis once claimed that the opening lines of Kubla Khan filled him with an unquenchable but rapturous yearning. He believed that such exultant aching is nothing other than joy: “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
The German term for this experience is, as Lewis tells us, Sehnsucht, and it describes precisely those instants when we are most alive: so sad we want to cry, so overjoyed that we weep. These antagonistic epiphanies, the inspirations of Coleridge’s genius, mark the transformative epochs of our lives.
I have been blessed by at least one such revelation, a marriage of verdure and frost. It keeps my fatherly affections as fresh as the spring, even though I know snow is never far. It holds me close to my girl as she walks into the cold distance. She is now seven years old and growing fast. She laughs as much as she cries.