“Work Without Hope” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge


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.

I read this sonnet a few times, because I was having difficulty deciphering its meaning.

In the first half, Coleridge is comparing himself to the natural world around him, observing how everything seems to be busy doing what is their natural wont while he sits, dejected, unable to find motivation to create.

In the second half of the poem, he seems to reflect on his past work, when he was in touch with his muse, but now the streams of inspiration are not flowing his way.

It is the last couplet that caused me the most trouble. While he appears to envy the creatures who work without hope, he acknowledges that everything they do is temporary, “nectar in a sieve,” leaving nothing for future generations. Is he implying that man’s creations are also temporary, and that his poetry will disappear just as the unused nectar? Or is he suggesting that what makes human artistic creations lasting is that we instill our work with Hope, with the desire that it transcend our existence, that we can convey some eternal truth that will help future generations?

I suspect I will be ruminating on this poem for a while. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them. Please feel free to share your interpretations in the comments section below.

Thanks, and do creative work!



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5 responses to ““Work Without Hope” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  1. This is a great little gem. As an entirely immersive poet, Coleridge creates in his poetry the very events of his experience. Part of his paradoxical self is that he experiences the act of living (or the making of poetry) while simultaneously denying any point, purpose, object to his being. And just as all things in Nature “seem” to do their “work” passively, which is a recurrent theme in his poetry, his wont is often to separate himself from this, just as he has become immersed in such. See “The Eolian Harp” for the coup de grace here. Similarly, you’ll find on Bukowski’s gravestone, “Don’t try.” The idea is to receive, to be passive, to allow the innate experience to be creative to occur.

    • That Bukowski epitaph sounds like something Yoda would say 😉 Great point about Eolian Harp. Poetry and inspiration should come naturally, and if you impose effort, you inevitably block the creative flow.

      • Yoda of course would say, “Try don’t.” Something about the word “seems” in the poem’s opening seems—haha—worth thinking on–versus what he later says of himself : “ken.” And I’d pair up your thinking, too, with Wordworth’s still trust,y “The World is Too Much With Us”—whose poetic style and focus on the droll business of business (“getting and spending,” and so on) touches upon Coleridge’s concerns from a different angle—not perhaps the same as Nature’s. Good for a stroll or two in the thick cold of winter. 🙂

  2. Maybe he was just bummed out. That can color one’s perspective on everything. It reminds me a bit of the “stale, flat and unprofitable” line in Hamlet.

    How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
    Seem to me all the uses of this world!