‘Human Life’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a three-stanza poem that is separated into two sets of nine lines and one set of twelve. The lines conform to a rhyming pattern that changes from stanza to stanza. The first set of nine lines rhymes, ababcdcde, the next stand rhymes ababacddceff, and the final set of nine lines follow a pattern of abccbddd.
A reader should also take note of the moments of connecting rhyme between the stanzas. This is seen in the first, second, and third stanzas in lines nine, ten, and one. The end sound in “purposes,” “rejoices” and “voices” connects these sections of text. It keeps the stanzas from becoming too separate from one another while also serving a conceptual purpose in that it requires a deeper analysis to find it. This is contrary to the speaker’s dark view of humankind and the idea that there is no meaning to life.
Summary of Human Life
The poem begins with the speaker stating that through this particular view of the world, when one dies, they are dead for good. There is nothing to penetrate the “gloom” and “doom” that is death. Life is brief, a “flash,” and is then over. He uses the example of Milton to show how preposterous this idea is. No one as important as Milton “can know death.” Surely, there is something else.
In the following lines, he describes the fallacy in the idea that “Nature” created humanity purposelessly. He speaks with exaggerating language, laboring over the metaphor of “Nature” becoming bored and offhandedly making humankind.
In the final lines, he supposes that what he previously stated is the case. This would mean there was no reason for living morally. One could live however they pleased, happily or sadly. One’s being has no purpose other than to live, die and disappear.
If dead, we cease to be ; if total gloom
Swallow up life’s brief flash for aye, we fare
As summer-gusts, of sudden birth and doom,
Whose sound and motion not alone declare,
But are their whole of being ! If the breath
Be Life itself, and not its task and tent,
If even a soul like Milton’s can know death ;
O Man ! thou vessel purposeless, unmeant,
Yet drone-hive strange of phantom purposes !
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins with a series of “if” statements that layout possible futures. He imagines a world in which the dead “cease to be.” In this reality, there is nothing after life— no heaven, hell, or any type of accountability. The second statement adds on the depressing detail of life being “Swallow[ed] up” by “gloom.” He is pondering the possibility that life is just a “flash” that goes by quickly and then disappears. Human beings are like “summer-gusts” in life. They do not stay for long, only for the season, and then move on.
The speaker continues on to describe the brevity of life as being made up of a “sudden birth and” then “doom.” From these initial lines, it is clear the speaker sees this possibly as hugely depressing. The text is also quite dramatic. The use of words like “doom,” “swallow” and “gloom” make the future seem drastically bad.
The following lines describe life as being something only marked by its “sound and motion.” One’s physical presence in the world is all that matters in this scenario. There is nothing transcendent or special about human life, physicality makes up the “whole being.” In his contemplation of these possibilities, the speaker turns to Milton as an example. He examines the fact that Milton’s soul “can know death.”
The speaker chose Milton as the penultimate example of someone he believes should not disappear into the “gloom” mentioned previously. He does not want to consider the possibility that Milton does not now exist in some form.
In the final two lines of this section, the speaker goes on to describe “Man” as being a “purposeless” “vessel.” Humans, he says, would have to be “meant” for nothing if there was truly nothing after death.
Surplus of Nature’s dread activity,
Which, as she gazed on some nigh-finished vase,
Retreating slow, with meditative pause,
She formed with restless hands unconsciously.
Blank accident ! nothing’s anomaly !
If rootless thus, thus substanceless thy state,
Go, weigh thy dreams, and be thy hopes, thy fears,
The counter-weights !–Thy laughter and thy tears
Mean but themselves, each fittest to create
And to repay the other ! Why rejoices
Thy heart with hollow joy for hollow good ?
Why cowl thy face beneath the mourner’s hood ?
In the second stanza, the speaker’s outrage over the idea that there is nothing after death reaches a peak. He moves through the different parts of life, stating each, and dismissing it as meaning nothing in these circumstances. It is clear he does not believe what he is proposing. Instead, he is trying to show the absurdity of any claim against an afterlife, or higher power.
He begins by describing “Nature’s” creations as being for nothing. They are “Surplus” which has been formed without any predetermined thought. Coleridge utilizes a metaphor that uses personification to paint an image of “Nature” crafting a “vase” that is never finished. It is done meditatively but pointlessly. Due to the fact that the creation has been made without a higher purpose in mind, it is said to be a “Blank accident” and an “anomaly” of nothing.
The next lines reintroduce the “if” statements. Coleridge’s speaker poses the following scenario: if “Nature’s” work means nothing, then why should one ever dream or hope? He discounts the need to care about fellow humans, feel joy, or grief if there is no higher purpose behind creation.
Why waste thy sighs, and thy lamenting voices,
Image of Image, Ghost of Ghostly Elf,
That such a thing as thou feel’st warm or cold ?
Yet what and whence thy gain, if thou withhold
These costless shadows of thy shadowy self ?
Be sad ! be glad ! be neither ! seek, or shun !
Thou hast no reason why ! Thou canst have none ;
Thy being’s being is contradiction.
The last stanza of this piece contains nine lines and concludes the speaker’s dark scenario of the afterlife. He poses a number of questions to the listener at this point. The first asks why one should “waste…sighs, and …lamenting voices” when there is no reason to anything one does. Human life is simply an “Image of Image” it is a “Ghost” of other ghosts. The speaker’s proposed idea of human life is decreasing. Now humanity is nothing more than that which came before it.
In the next lines, he goes on to give permission for humanity to do as it will. There is no reason to withhold one’s “shadowy self” as there are no consequences after death. He states that one should be “sad” or “glad” or any other feeling without care.
In a world ruled by purpose and divine presence one might consider acting morally, but not in the world the speaker proposes. In this world, one’s “being is contradiction” as one is in fact nothing more than a duplicate doomed for a gloomy future.