‘Work without Hope’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a non-traditional sonnet, write-in fourteen lines, divided into two stanzas. The sonnet does not follow in particular, popular, rhyme scheme but instead follows the patter of ABABBB CCDDCCEE.
Additionally, rather than one half of the sonnet answer or explaining the other, the entire narrative is laid out in the first twelve lines and summarized in the final two.
In the first section of the poem, the speaker is out in an undefined natural environment. It is here that he observes all manner of life around him. This life, including bees, birds, and plants, is all working towards independent goals. The birds sing and the bees make honey. He is the sole “unbusy” element in this forest.
In the second stanza, the speaker comes to terms with the fact that he is contributing nothing to his own life and that his presence in the world is not enough; the flowers will not bloom simply because he is there. He is being consumed by drowsiness of mind due to his lack of direction. He has no hopes to work towards, nor any real object to set his mind on.
Analysis of Work without Hope
Lines 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.
In the first stanza of this piece, which also contains the first six lines, the speaker describes the ways in which “Nature” appears to work all around him. As he is traveling through a natural environment he is able to observe the “Slugs” leaving “their trails” and the “stirring” of the bees. He can see the various animals all moving in their individual lives although it is still Winter. There are birds in the air, “on the wing” and Winter seems to smile at the thought of the coming spring.
The world he sees is actively able to understand what needs to be done for the day, and feels the progression of time as “Winter” is coming to an end.
In contrast to all this movement, the speaker observes, are his own actions. He is the only element of the surrounding environment that is not working. He is the “sole unbury thing.” This deeply bothers him as he realizes that he has nothing to contribute to the world around him. He is the only one not making honey, “pair[ing]” up, “build[ing]” or sing[ing].”
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.
In the second stanza of this piece, which contains the last eight lines, the speaker attempts to come to terms with his presence and purpose in Nature. He knows he is not there to work, like all the other creatures he is observing, nor is he to be the recipient of the work done by the birds, bees, and plants.
He begins this section by stating that he is extremely familiar with the “banks where amaranths blow.” He knows this section of the world very well and has in the past “traced the fount” from where all the nectar is following. He can follow the trail of plant life and bees, specifically amaranth flowers, through the forested land.
With this being said, and the speaker has developed what one might perceive to be an intimate connection with the woods, he backtracks. His realization in this part of the piece is a worthy one. He calls out to the world around him, “Bloom, O ya amaranths! Bloom for whom ye may.” The speaker knows that the amaranth flowers, and by default, all other life in the forest, is not there for him. It works for its own sake, not to please any visitor, even a regular one.
The amaranth will choose when, and for whom, it blooms without being influenced by his presence. He continues on to state that he knows the flowers do not bloom for him, and he would not ask them to.
In the final lines of the piece, the speaker’s general mood comes into play. He is in a state of mental drowsiness that seems to come from either his lack of work or the purpose of missing from his work. He is wandering aimlessly through the forest, accomplishing nothing, striving for nothing, and he asks the natural world, and his readers, if they understand why that is.
In the last two lines, he concludes his thoughts and summarizes the poem in its entirety. He states his belief that if one works without “Hope” for the future or some purpose in mind, all the nectar that is drawn will be for naught. It will be like it is strained through a sieve and all that one will be left with is the bare minimum. The same thing goes for hoping without a particular “object” in mind. There is no point to it.
About Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devonshire, England in October of 1772. He was the youngest of fourteen children and attended school in the grammar school of which his father was the master.
After his father’s death, Coleridge moved to London where he studied at Christ’s Hospital School where he accumulated a large debt, a fact that would follow him for his entire life.
Coleridge was married in 1795 to Sarah Fricker, although he was in love with another woman he had met while in school. It was during this time period that Coleridge began his writing career and met William Wordsworth. Wordsworth would be a great influence on Coleridge’s writing and the following year he published his first volume, Poems on Various Subjects. In 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge began their collaboration on Lyrical Ballads which is considered to be one of the greatest works of the Romanic Movement.
Over the following years, Coleridge traveled, lectured, and wrote on a variety of subjects. He eventually moved to Malta, where he was named secretary to the governor. He struggled greatly with an addiction to opium but continued to write until his death in July of 1834.