"Work Without Hope"

On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one. Over his final few years Coleridge continued to write in his religious-philosophical vein, but he was decades past his great poems and, living in semi-seclusion in rented rooms, equally estranged from many people who were once close to him. When a young Thomas Carlyle visited Coleridge he found “a kind good soul, full of religion and affection and poetry and animal magnetism,” but also “a great and useless genius” and, in conversation, “a man sailing on many currents.”  

The failure of Coleridge’s talent is attributed, in part, to his return to opium, this habit facilitated by a sympathetic local chemist. In an 1825 sonnet entitled “Work Without Hope,” Coleridge alludes to his addiction, and to a deeper mystery and despair:

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.

Coleridge’s papers abound with various attempts to explain, address, or reverse the evidence of his fading powers. In his Notebooks he can be mystical and obscure: “The Will of the Chaos—its dark disactualizing, clinging Self-Contrariety suspended, and forced asunder to become actual as opposites—Light and Gravity. Yes! This supplies the link that was missing….” In one letter he describes his thoughts as fledgling birds, “mature enough to climb up & chirp on the edge of their Birth-nest” but not to fly even so far as a “perch on the next branch.” In another he resembles himself to “a Bottle of Brandy in Spitzbergen—a Dram of alcoholic Fire in the centre of a Cake of Ice.” In the “Epitaph” he wrote for himself, he seems to sound a note of relief that the struggle might soon be over:

               …Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seem’d he–
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.