The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol 1 (1785-1800)

It feels like a violation of privacy to churn through someone’s letters, especially those crisp reminders of childhood, plaintive pleas for money to be sent for various school expenses, etc. If my own letters were collected I’d be embarrassed to peruse them.

In this volume, you are thrashed around from staggering highs and extreme lows, only filled in on the details by an occasional footnote. In the midst of college, boom! he’s off and enlisted in the army either because of debts or because a lady rejected his affections (his brothers get him out of it by claiming insanity). We even get a peek at letters to that lady, such as this from 1792 to Mary Evans which is a great example of Coleridge’s quirky talent:

Now by the most accurate calculation of the specific quantities of sounds, a female tongue, when it exerts itself to the utmost, equals the noise of eighteen sign-posts, which the wind swings backwards and forwards in full creak. If then one equals eighteen, ten must equal one hundred and eighty; consequently, the circle at Jermyn Street unitedly must have produced a noise equal to that of one hundred and eighty old crazy sign-posts, inharmoniously agitated as aforesaid. Well! to be sure, there are few disagreeables for which the pleasure of Mary and Anne Evans’ company would not amply compensate; but faith! I feel myself half inclined to thank God that I was fifty-two miles off during this clattering clapperation of tongues.

The letters moan about fevers and colds and detail business transactions and poem corrections. They chronicle the trip to Germany with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, requests for loans, beg for advice about whether to take a job teaching or preaching or writing, detail the deterioration of his relationship with Charles Lamb.

He makes up words like “vaccimulgence”: “Will you try to look out for a fit servant for us—simple of heart, physiognomically handsome, and scientific in vaccimulgence? That last word is a new one, but soft in sound and full of expression. Vaccimulgence! I am pleased with the word.” (1796)

He uses surprising phrases: “Monday afternoon, Ned, Tatum, and myself sat from four till ten drinking! and then arose as cool as three undressed cucumbers.”

He tells dumb jokes/puns: “I would write Odes and Sonnets Morning & Evening – & metaphysicize at Noon – and of rainy days I would overwhelm you with an Avalanche of Puns and Conundrums loosened by sudden thaw from the Alps of my imagination.” (He then goes on to pun about kild-er-kin, satan, religious attorneys, etc.)

Everyone loves a good self-deprecation: “[My face is] a mere carcase of a face: flat, flabby, & expressive chiefly of inexpression… my gait is awkward & the walk, & the Whole man indicates indolence capable of energies…”

But then he launches into beautiful language about being a reader and being too lazy to write, calling himself a cormorant who will eat just about anything:

I am, and ever have been, a great reader, and have read almost everything—a librarycormorant. I am deep in all out of the way books, whether of the monkish times, or of the puritanical era. I have read and digested most of the historical writers; but I do not like history. Metaphysics and poetry and “facts of mind,” that is, accounts of all the strange phantasms that ever possessed “your philosophy;” dreamers, from Thoth the Egyptian to Taylor the English pagan, are my darling studies. In short, I seldom read except to amuse myself, and I am almost always reading. Of useful knowledge, I am a so-so chemist, and I love chemistry. All else is blank; but I will be (please God) an horticulturalist and a farmer. I compose very little, and I absolutely hate composition, and such is my dislike that even a sense of duty is sometimes too weak to overpower it.