Literature

A Short Analysis of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Work without Hope’

‘Work without Hope’ is a poem by the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from 1825. A short poem, ‘Work without Hope’ is sometimes regarded as a sort of coda to Coleridge’s far more famous longer poem, ‘Dejection: An Ode’. A few words of analysis of this short poem about work – and hope – may help to illuminate its meaning, but first, here’s the text of the poem.

Work without Hope

Lines Composed 21st February 1825

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.

What is work without hope? Or hope without putting the work in? As Coleridge (1772-1834) writes here, ‘Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And Hope without an object cannot live.’ Composed on 21 February 1825, ‘Work without Hope’ is a late Coleridge poem, written almost thirty years after the more famous The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and just nine years before Coleridge’s death.

But what does the poem mean? Let’s go through it, one stanza at a time, and summarise what Coleridge is saying:

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—

Coleridge begins ‘Work without Hope’ by observing nature (personified as ‘Nature’): so far, we are in familiar territory for Romanticism, which often involves the poet engaging with, or observing, nature and relating this to his own personal feelings and mood. Every creature in the natural world, from slugs to bees to birds, are out and about, now spring is in the offing. Note the date on which the poem was composed, according to Coleridge’s note: 21st February. Spring isn’t here yet, but the birds that might fly to warmer climes during the winter are returning, and the bees are out to see what nectar can be gathered.

And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Next, in the remainder of this first stanza, Coleridge personifies Winter (as male: one pictures a grey-bearded, hoary-headed old fellow), and imagines Winter smiling as he begins to dream Spring into existence. Coleridge is the only one not out doing things: he doesn’t have anything to do. Bees make honey, birds build nests, and sing. As a later nature poet, perhaps the greatest nature poet of all of the Victorians, Gerard Manley Hopkins, later put it: ‘Birds build, but not I build’.

Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!

The second stanza of ‘Work without Hope’ begins with Coleridge contrasting his present state of inactivity with his past productivity: although he’s lounging around not doing anything now, the only being in nature without an occupation, he says he knows full well of the banks where amaranths blow in the wind, and nectar can be found. He’s been there before, and produced his poetry. Now, though, he’s getting cross with nature, so beautiful and inspiring – yet it won’t inspire him. Like the proverbially busy bees, then, he knows where to find sweetness in life; but something prevents him from getting up and going in search of it. Dejection, perhaps?

With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.

Coleridge concludes ‘Work without Hope’ by telling us his lips are ‘unbrightened’ (with words, or inspiration for poems?) and his brow is ‘wreathless’ (he is hardly going to be crowned with laurels for his lack of poetic achievement). Is there any point in him putting pen to paper and trying to communicate to us, the reader, how he feels, when all he’ll be able to say is ‘I feel like a spell’s been cast over me to make me unable to write’? He concludes the poem with the couplet that has the force of a proverb:

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.

In other words, working without something to strive or aim for produces no good results, and you can’t have hope in the first place without an object to fix your sights on. If you can find that object of desire, something to be aiming for, hope will follow – and then work.

‘Work without Hope’ looks like a sonnet – it has 14 lines – but its rhyme scheme doesn’t resemble any recognisable sonnet form. The poem is rhymed ababbb ccddeeff. The rhyme scheme, which begins as alternating rhyme in the first quatrain, then settles down thereafter into a series of regular rhyming couplets, which grow out of the b rhyme.

We can speculate as to the reasons Coleridge chose this particular rhyme pattern (and the poem is often uncritically labelled a ‘sonnet’ elsewhere online, because of its 14 lines). One reason is that he wants to call to mind the usual, somewhat more elaborate and sophisticated rhyme scheme for a sonnet (whether using the English or Italian form), but his lack of motivation soon leads to his initial attempt trailing off into predictable couplets, after that initial quatrain (which follows the abab rhyme pattern of an English sonnet). This is one explanation – though we’ll probably never know for sure what made Coleridge rhyme the poem in this curious way.

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