Saturday, July 5, 2008

Work Without Hope

Dear Everyone:

Here’s a poem that’s one hundred seventy nine years old tomorrow.

Work Without Hope
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

(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.

Okay, did you follow it? The diction is a little forced (“elevated” the poet would have said), but once you make allowances for that, it’s clear enough. He’s writing in late February, right on the cusp of winter and spring, when the season is neither one nor the other, and life begins to stir. “Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow” means “I know well where amaranths blow in the wind.” But his lips are “unbrightened” (think big toothpaste commercial grin -- or, rather, lack of it -- here) and his brow is “wreathless.” He’s thinking here of the laurel wreath that was laid upon the brow of the winners of the Olympics in ancient Greece. The laurel wreath is a symbol of the poet. So he’s complaining that he’s not writing any poems.

Coleridge works without hope, and therefore his soul is in a drowse, half-asleep. And he has no hope because it has no object, which is to say, he can think of nothing to hope for. Basically, this is a poem about writer’s block. But it appeals to anybody who’s ever felt his or her talents going to waste just because they can’t figure out what to direct them towards.

And yet... spring is coming. (It helps to know that England this time of year is roughly two weeks further into the season than is Philadelphia.) It can’t be stopped. So the facts put the lie to his despair.

Coleridge was one of the Romantics, and had a particularly hard case of writer’s block. Tons of talent, relatively few poems. But those that survive, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and “Kubla Khan” among others, look to be good for the long run.

All best,


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