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.
“And hope without an object cannot live.”
Hope is the well-spring of human happiness. It drives us forward, gives us a reason to exist, and justifies engaging in countless unpleasant tasks that may ultimately lead to a better end. Coleridge’s poem addresses a critical aspect of hope; that all hope is hoping -for-.
The poem functions through a series of allusions to activity in nature, and indeed nature provides the context and the principal aesthetic for the poem (insects, animals, seasons, plants, streams, etc.). Coleridge uses these universally-understood elements of the natural world to construct a comparison between himself and his context. He feels surrounded by a great sense of movement and urgency, yet he remains idle. Bugs, birds and even the seasons themselves are embodiments of a drive that propels them all. The slugs leave their lair on mysterious missions. The bees seek pollen for the betterment of their hives. The birds fly a determined course to feed their hatchlings. The personification of Winter contributes to the overall sense of business, for even the seasons move forward in an endless purposeful cycle. All have their tasks. All have their purpose. And the poet? –his role in this dynamic is as an observer only.
His exclusion, however, is not self-imposed, and not for want of effort. He has tried to take of that which seems to drive the other creatures around him. He has sought happiness and hope–dug deep in his own psyche for a raison d’etre–and come away unfulfilled. A stream of nectar flowing among blooming flowers is a fitting metaphor for fulfillment, and he has walked alongside it. Others may have gone before him, adorning their brows with blooms and sipping of the divine drink. Perhaps he has even seen them on his life’s course. Having crossed paths with them, however, could only highlight his own inability to join their ranks. Until he finds hope, the joys of life–the meaning of life–exist merely as a palimpsest beneath a shroud of inpenetrable gloom.
Among the most provocative philosophical accomplishments of the piece is its ability to highlight the poet’s internal conflict, which in turn engenders empathy. We are left curious as to why the poet can find no reason to hope. Is it the existential dread that lurks in the subliminal territories of the human mind? Perhaps the recurring question–why bother?–that drags legions into idleness and depression. Work for its own sake–work without hope–is surely hollow and cold, and hope is really hoping -for-. With no object, with no reason for being, humankind becomes accutely aware of their own fragility and insignificance in the universe. Without an object of hope, there is no hope. And without hope, there is no fulfillment. The poet has no answer to this paradox, and neither do we.