POTW: What Hurts, Teaches – Reflections on a Coleridge Poem

Quae Nocent Docent

[in Christ’s Hospital book]

O! mihi praeteritos referat si Jupiter annos! (1789)

Oh! might my ill-past hours return again!
No more, as then, should Sloth around me throw
Her soul-enslaving, leaden chain!
No more the precious time would I employ
In giddy revels, or in thoughtless joy,
A present joy producing future woe.

But o’er the midnight Lamp I’d love to pore,
I’d seek with care fair Learning’s depths to sound,
And gather scientific Lore:
Or to mature the embryo thoughts inclin’d,
That half-conceiv’d lay struggling in my mind,
The cloisters’ solitary gloom I’d round.

’Tis vain to wish, for Time has ta’en his flight —
For follies past be ceas’d the fruitless tear
Let follies past to future care incite.
Averse maturer judgements to obey
Youth owns, with pleasure owns, the Passions’ sway,
But sage Experience only comes with years.

REFLECTION

The title, “Quae Nocent Docent,” means “What hurts, teaches.” When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote this poem (shockingly, at 17 years old), he was a student at Christ Hospital in London, a boarding school for orphans and the poor. He was sent there at age 10 after his father’s death. At the time Sam was the only son left at home. The youngest of nine brothers and one sister, Sam’s older brothers had all left home—and because young Sam was so close to his father, his father’s death was particularly difficult. As well, the loss of his father’s income forced the family to move from a schoolhouse (where his father was headmaster) to a nearby home. Soon after, it was arranged for Coleridge to be sent to Christ Hospital. His years there were in some ways rather painful. He was isolated and lonely, as hardly anyone in his family came to visit him.

What strikes me about this poem is Coleridge’s unusually astute, almost prophetic understanding of suffering, wisdom, and time. We glimpse this from the outset with the poem’s title (What hurts, teaches) and subtitle: O! mihi praeteritos referat si Jupiter annos! “If only Jupiter would restore me those bygone years!”

In the opening couple lines, he asks for his poorly-spent periods of time in the past to return again. For now, at the wiser age of 17 (it’s still difficult for me to conceive of this level of perception at 17), he would,

No more, as then, should Sloth around me throw
Her soul-enslaving, leaden chain!
No more the precious time would I employ
In giddy revels, or in thoughtless joy. (1.2-5)

And no more would he give himself to “present joys” that produce “future woes” (l. 5).

In stanza two he outlines what he would do differently if he could get back those ill-spent years. He would “seek with care fair learning’s depths,” poring over truth and beauty under the midnight lamp. He would gather scientific lore and develop and complete his embryonic, half-conceived thoughts. In short, he would spend his time, not in sloth and giddy revels, but in quality, soul-driven intellectual work and reflection.

Stanza three presents his conclusion and epiphanal Central Idea. The first two lines, “’Tis vain to wish, for Time has ta’en his flight —/ For follies past be ceas’d the fruitless tears:” (3.1-2), set forth the harsh fact that it is vain to wish for his ill-spent time to return, for it will not. All he must do now is “Let follies past to future care incite.” He resigns himself to what he can change— he can let the memory of past mistakes incite a better use of time in the future. For, as he realizes, even then at 17, he expresses in the final two lines:

Youth owns, with pleasure owns, the Passions’ sway,
But sage Experience only comes with years.

What he did not realize, ironically, is that sage experience made an exception for him—for through his childhood pain we receive this poem, and through it, a turn in the sagacity gained through suffering.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles