"Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, And hope without an object cannot live."
The epigraph comes from the 1825 poem "Work without Hope" by the English Romantic poet, 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 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.
The poem is an unconventional sonnet; it develops a main idea in the first twelve lines, and is capped by a big thought in the final couplet. The poem follows a narrator describing the industriousness of nature’s creatures, preparing for the coming spring. All of Creation is at work, but the speaker is sullen as the only creature he can see who finds himself without an occupation.
He notes that while he is a part of Nature, the world does not work for him. For example, it is not for him that the amaranths (flowers) bloom, and he watches as the richness of Nature escapes from him in the streams. In the final couplet the speaker sums up his despair and explains the ultimate reason for his listlessness: he cannot work as he has no hope. He has nothing to hope for, and so he has no life to speak of. He is an observer, not a participant, in the wealth of the natural world, and as he does not partake in it, he does not receive its bounty.
Markandaya uses this poem’s final couplet as an epigraph to hint that the problem described in the poem will be a central issue in the novel. Our characters here are awed by the beauty and richness of nature, but they do not always receive happiness from it. Their work is never-ending. Unlike the poem’s speaker, however, the characters in Nectar in a Sieve are constantly at work, but their work only provides enough to survive and not to celebrate. We learn throughout the novel that survival itself is never a certainty.
Markandaya’s use of the poem in Nectar in a Sieve is ambiguous. The epigraph puts forth, but does not answer, the question of whether the characters actually have hope. The preceding parts of the poem – which Markandaya deliberately leaves out – make it clear that Coleridge’s speaker is hopeless. Markandaya, however, gives no such certainty about her characters. Ruku, Nathan, and the others might have an object for their hope, and their work might not be in vain. If they work in vain, then their doom is certain; if they work towards survival or spiritual redemption, then their efforts become meaningful.
Thus the epigraph captures the central tension of the book: the beginning and end of the book never explicitly tell us whether Rukmani and her family suffer in vain. The characters of the book identify with the idea that work without hope is like nectar draining from a sieve. It is up to the reader, though, to decide whether these characters are actually working without hope. If the characters are buoyed by their hope and work, they may get to enjoy the nectar of life before it slips away.