Work as Blessing

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the most highly regarded literary figures of his time, but as a poet he had an unsettled, irregular career.

His life was a mess -- unhappy marriage, frustrated passion for his best friend's sister-in-law, and an incurable addiction to laudenum, the 19th-century version of Oxycontin.

Among the great poets, he's probably written the smallest number of great poems, most of them before he was 30 -- including "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," his "Dejection" ode (an inspired poem about the loss of inspiration), and two mysterious masterworks, "Christabel," which he never finished, and "Kubla Kahn," which he regarded as unfinished and finally published 18 years after he wrote it.

At 53, he wrote his saddest poem, a poem he waited only three years to publish -- called "Work without Hope." He regarded work as natural, and having at times worked brilliantly, even effortlessly -- he knew what he was missing, and was devastated by that loss. One footnote: "Amaranth" is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as both "an imaginary flower that never dies" and as a real plant also known as pigweed.

"Work without Hope," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

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 seive, And Hope without an object cannot live.
Labor Day is an ironic holiday, a festival celebrating an end to festivity. Summer is gone. Vacation, however brief it may have been, is over. We face another year of struggling in the mines -- and for some of us, that's not just a metaphor.

In hard times, we're lucky to have any work at all. But at any time, there's little in life that's luckier than having work we love. On this Labor Day, let Coleridge's poem be an object lesson for those of us who, though we may complain, can truly celebrate returning to the work we love.

Lloyd Schwartz is the Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic for the Boston Phoenix. His latest book of poems is entitled Cairo Traffic.

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