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"Works of imagination should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are the more necessary it is to be plain"

- S.T.C.

"Work Without Hope"

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 unbrighten'd, 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
.


Written in 1825, Coleridge’s “Work Without Hope” is a sonnet relating nature to the emotions of the speaker. The imagery used throughout the poem is both a reflection of the natural world and a reference to the speaker’s mental state. Seasons are used in the poem to relate what the speaker is feeling, and how it affects his life. Described as “lines composed on a day in February,” or during the beginning of spring, we realize that the speaker is truly contemplating the ideas presented throughout the poem.

“Work Without Hope” is a sonnet, although it is not written in traditional sonnet form. The development of the poem is presented the same way as in a sonnet; the poem develops in the first 12 lines. The last two lines then present the overall theme of the poem to the reader. Throughout this poem the speaker observes nature at work, and uses the activity to set up a contrast between himself and a busy natural world. This is illustrated throughout the first six lines of the poem, which discuss the beauty of nature using classic terms – "slugs leave their lair/ the bees are stirring – birds are on the wing". The contrast is made quite apparent here: “And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,/ Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.” We learn that the speaker has come to the realization that while nature is beautiful, he struggles to identify himself within this world of purpose and business. Instead, we see him as an observer, not a participant. These are personal themes throughout Coleridge's life; he often battled with feelings of failure due to a variety of life events. Please refer to the Biography of S.T.C. for more information on this topic. Although Coleridge’s phrase, “WINTER slumbering in the open air/ Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring” appears trite and unconvincing, this contrived sentence sets up this idyllic setting as a foil for what the speaker has to say about his own purposelessness.

The speaker then develops his conscious thought in the next six lines. Although aware of the beauty that surrounds him, he is also conscious of the unsuccessful picture he presents to such a scene. This is clear when the speaker addressed the world around him, saying, “Bloom, O ye Amaranths! Bloom for whom ye may/ For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!” The speaker recognizes that this beauty does not exist for him, and he sees himself as a poor recipient for the natural world. This parallel between nature and man is a prevalent theme throughout Romantic literature, often elaborated upon by Percy Bysshe Shelley, among others. Amaranths, coincidentally, are unfading flowers, and exist as yet another contrast to a speaker who is fading as we speak. He is well aware that he possesses a lack of success: “With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll” illustrates his deficiency as compared to this productive natural scene. The speaker is full of despair; he realizes that he has contributed nothing. He is as sterile as the winter that preceded this productive spring season.

The final theme is illustrated and interpreted in the last two lines of the poem. “WORK WITHOUT HOPE draws nectar in a sieve/And HOPE without an OBJECT cannot live” ends Coleridge’s poem and summarizes the overall point. Drawing nectar, the sugary-sweet juice of poetic fame, through a sieve is impossible, as is performing any work without hope. For without hope, there can never be success. This idea is expanded with the statement that hope cannot live without an object, or a point. For if there is nothing to hope for, then where does hope go? It simply drains away. The speaker is isolated in this world of spring beauty, the contrast felt all the more because of the life and production that surrounds him.