Read the following poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and write an essay about the poem in which you address the following:
How does the poem work? How would you explicate its meaning? What does the poem accomplish aesthetically, intellectually, and/or philosophically?
Work Without Hope
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, 0 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.
Coleridge’s “Work Without Hope,” strikes a reader with a contrast between the industry of nature and the narrator’s seemingly glum presence in the scene. A reader’s expectation of nature, especially a scene of nature at the outset of spring (so fresh and gorgeous that even “…Winter slumbering in the open air/Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!”) is one of hope, maybe, or the joy that comes from a sense of new things in contrast to the passing of old. But the title itself weighs on our expectation, without even an irony, suggesting at the outset that this fresh activity of budding nature is a veil — hiding what?
The poem works by building on the confusion of the title and the opening scene. The author intrudes in the final two lines, “the sole unbusy thing.” Why is he there? He follows in the second stanza with appreciation of the natural scheme about him. “Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,” he says, “Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.” To “ken,” is to fully understand, an obsolete word, even in Coleridge’s time, but a rich one, suggesting, as formal language can, authoritative knowledge from experience. When the narrator has “traced a fount,” he has followed closely a route to an origin, not something a being indifferent to nature would do.
Further, he calls out to the flower to bloom “. . . for whom ye may.” But, then, he drops his bomb: “For me ye bloom not!” By contrasting his presence in the poem with our expectation of the images he presents of spring, he forcefully draws a distinction between his brooding, human presence and the mindless, pointless activity of nature, This confrontation with the reader’s assumptions about nature poems delivers us to his stern and unromantic message: a human being cannot be as nature, but can only “live” when he hopes for an “object.” He “strolls” amidst the quickening of spring, apart from its pointless activity.
Coleridge has often been defined as the original romantic poet, a proto-transcendentalist, but in poems like this his rejection of sentimental romanticism, a drowning embrace of nature as the goal of the seeking soul, is clear. He sees, in nature, the message of the human condition in romantic fashion, but he rejects the answer to the human condition as being found solely in nature. Nature has no “hope.” This is an interesting word in that it encompasses in the poem the uniquely human idea of goals and ends. Human things must have a point and a purpose, something that nature alone does not have. Thus nature, known so intimately as Coleridge describes, is in contrast to the strolling poet “With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow.”
I see Coleridge insisting on the preeminence of the human soul. It would be easy to call him a conservative of some sort, rejecting the excesses of the new poetry that he himself conceived, but in his scrutiny of nature is that uniquely American paganism that not only rejects the relegation of God to a stone edifice, but finds God again in the human being. Thomas Jefferson cites the divinity of human reason in the Declaration of Independence when he says that all men are entitled to good government by “nature’s God.” Coleridge bears this same ideal in the poem by suggesting that the mind of humans places them outside, yet within, the mindless process of natural activity.
Coleridge accomplishes a complex and satisfying irony by sucker-punching our complacency and sentiment about nature. He doesn’t let us react — he elegantly establishes his natural bona-fides and then dismisses them within a line: “Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,/For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!” And then he strolls, not an alien to the spring world, but rather a soul-bearing element of the world that contrasts with it by having hope of something eternal, something outside of the pointless cycle of seasons — for in the bloom of spring is the death of winter.
Aesthetically, the poem resembles a Petrachan sonnet with its A-B-B-A rhyme scheme and its 13 lines (14 if “. . . Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.” were placed as a separate line — which would mess up the rhyme scheme). Sonnets are for love, and this is a hint from Coleridge of his insistence that he is not rejecting, but rather regarding nature in contrast to himself. This and his attack on our expectations exerts the intellect, and very satisfyingly when we are given a view of the eternal soul that is not standard or dogmatic.
To conclude, Coleridge places the human soul squarely in nature, for the messages he receives from it provide the contrast that generates the idea of what the soul is — a thing that aspires to an object and gives meaning to existence. Certainly this is not an idea lost on later thinkers from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Wallace Stevens. The unique part of humanity is the measure of everything.”