Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Coleridge: "Work without Hope"

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Coleridge: "Work without Hope"

Article excerpt

Forest of Dean Coleridge wrote the first draft of "Work without Hope" on February 21, 1825, jotting down the poem in one of his many notebooks, and explaining that "this premature warm and sunny day, ntedating spring, called forth the following":

  All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair; The
  Bees are stirring; Birds are on the wing; And WINTER
  slumb'ring in the open air Wears on his smiling face
  a dream of Spring. And 1, the while, the solermbusy
  Thing, Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

  Yet well 1 ken the banks, where Amaranths blow, Have
  traced the fount where streams of Nectar flow. Bloom,
  0 ye Amaranths! bloom for whom ye may-For Me ye bloom
  not! Glide, rich Streams! away! With lips unbrighten'd,
  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. (PW 606).

It is fourteen lines, the length of a sonnet, but not following any structure or rhyme pattern usually associated with sonnets--which are frequently in two parts, with eight lines, the octet, setting out problems or difficulties, and the sestet, six lines, offering some kind of resolution. That is reversed here, with six lines then eight, and no obvious division of the two sections into problem and solution. The rhyme pattern also has no established precedent: the-first four lines are a b a b, which is promising, but the final couplet is bb, creating a triplet, and giving the sestet only two rhymes in all. The norm is three rhymes, ababcc. The second section is all couplets--again, an unexampled irregularity.

However, Coleridge had no time for this kind of formality, and in something of a jeu d'esprit, sending some left over lines of "Youth and Age" to Blackwoods in 1832, he asked: "What is an English Sonnet? Down with Theory--Facts, facts, facts must decide. And some myriad of these, with deliberate rhymes, if not metre or reason, perpetrated pas, have establislied that a copy of verses, consisting of exactly fourteen lines, is an English Sonnet ... rhymes being the ordinary, but not necessary accompaniment" (PW II ii 119). So, a sonnet it is. As Coleridge himself said of an earlier effusion, "It has the character of a Sonnet--that it is like a something that we let escape from us--a Sigh, for instance... " (CL V 779). This poem gives the impression of thoughts that have "formed themselves into verse instinctively...".(1) And this ties in with its appearance in the notebook, in which there are only three emendations, all taken up in the published poem, which is thus the final version of the notebook poem. So as one first meets "Work without Hope," and as its first readers met it in 1827,(2) and as .one meets it in every subsequent edition except the Collected Coleridge, it appears a pleasant if simple poem, a lament for the poet's lack of creativity, inspired by a burst of unseasonably warm weather.

There are some oddities, though. Consider the final couplet of the first section: "And I, the while, the sole unbusy Thing,/Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing." This sounds a little bit like the poem of a young man, 'bemoaning a temporary lack of creativity, without a wife, without a house, lacking a nest, suffering writer's block. But he is fifty-three, prematurely old, enduring various chronic illnesses, married though separated, with three children., and only some nine years of life ahead of hint. And if he felt unpaired, he was nonetheless well-housed, in the comfortable home of Dr. Gillman, where he had been for just under ten years, a literary celebrity, visited by many of the good and the great, and with a following of soon-to-be influential young men, who came to listen to him on Thursday evenings. So, surely not "wreathless." In the words of Harold Macmillan, he'd never had it so good: he lived with a family who had become. his friends; all his domestic needs were met; he didn't have ID earn a living; and his rent remained both unpaid and unasked for. …

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