What to read in a Shared Reading group: Coleridge’s Work Without Hope

hostas
Hostas in the long border at Calderstones. Slugs are leaving their lairs…

Yesterday’s reading of Silas Marner, concentrating on Silas need to weave and to hoard money, reminded me of ‘Work Without Hope’ by  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, so I’ve chosen that for today’s reading. If we were meeting in a weekly Shared Reading group, and in the thick of chapter two of Silas,  I might well bring it along next time…but it would need most of a session for itself. Short it may be  but it doesn’t seem a quick read.

Here’s a poem about feeling out of kilter with everything:

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.
The mention of the slugs sets up a sort of revulsion in me.  When I hear, or remember, ‘All nature seems at work’, there’s an instinct of pleasure – hurray, life is coming back. Then Coleridge completely undercuts that good feeling with a bad one. Slugs!
He goes back to  parts of nature I am more keen on ( bees, birds) but he’s put those  slugs in my mind, and there they are,  bothering me. Still, I try to get over it and think of the bees and the birds and what they promise:
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
Winter isn’t quite as horrible as the slugs, but I’m conscious that various  forces are pulling me about here as I read – good Spring, bad winter, good Nature, horrible slugs. Now I come to a reason for this  tussle: Coleridge feels at odds with the movement of the earth.
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
It cannot quite be the case that Coleridge is the ‘sole unbusy thing’ yet the feeling he suffers  is strong and leads to a lot of  strong negatives  in the final line of this stanza. It’s as if the mind  is moving to and from, attracted and repulsed by good liveliness and then bad retreat. Good things in that last  line – honey, pair, build, sing. I feel their presence. But also feel the almost deadening power of those four times repeated ‘nors’.
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?
In the second stanza Coleridge remembers  good things he has experienced in the past – he tells us of ‘amaranths and nectar’. He may be thinking about lovely things in nature or he may be  using these as metaphors for pleasure, creativity, joy, fulfillment. He does not feel these things now, though he has known them in the past. The final couplet may be a go at explaining why, but it is hard to get at, though the rhyme gives the impression of something being concluded.
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
‘Work without hope’ is the phrase that connected my reading of Silas to this poem. Does Silas ‘work without hope’?  Until he falls in love with the collection of coins he does. Now his ‘hope’ is for the gold, an outcome of the work. But there is no hope for him, for example in human relationships. no hope, no working at it.
Fo9r Coleridge, there may nectar ( for which I’m reading  creative pleasure) but without hope, it cannot be retained. What’s the hope? I feel stuck and need to translate this into something I can practically understand!
Let me turn to bindweed. ‘Bindweed!’ said John the Gardner, when I was looking at the long border at Calderstones with him last week, ‘If you’ve got that you’ll never get rid of it.’
Well I have got it. When I see it my heart sinks. There is work without hope. I will continue to try to get rid of it, but I do feel it has already beaten me. I can do an hour’s weeding but bindweed can undercut my pleasure (it doesn’t actually, because I don’t really care about it, so this isn’t a very good example, but bear with me! Imagine I do really care and feel that bindweed is ruining my garden). If bindweed had so overrun my garden my work wold be work without hope.
But back to the poem – what about Coleridge? He adds bit more ‘And Hope without an object cannot live’.
What’s the object?  And why is this all mixed up? It seems as though Coleridge is telling me this in the wrong order – I feel I am having to twist myself round to follow what he means in this closing couplet.
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
Let me  start again, at the end  – hope without an object cannot live.  When Silas was banished from the Lantern Yard community he had no hope because he had no object- he knew he  could not get back. It was all over.  Now he must work ( to live) and does so, mechanically. There is no pleasure in it – work is ‘nectar in a seive’. Until he starts to love the gold, then he has hope.
But for Coleridge, working without hope, the sad thing  is there is still a strange taste of ‘nectar’ – you just can’t keep hold of it, ‘nectar in a seive.’
Coleridge doesn’t give any explanations: this is a simply description of the state he is in. Great thing about it? He has been creative even with his depression. He has produced something.
Lots of questions arise: Does it bother you to read a poem about what we’d probably call depression? What would group members want to talk about? What would you do as a Reader Leader to create a safe place for talking about the feelings of negativity the poem might illuminate?
But time is up for today.

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