THE living Coleridge fascinated his contemporaries, and almost without exception they paid tribute to his genius. Wordsworth called him 'the most wonderful man that he had ever known'; Southey spoke of his mind as 'infinitely and ten thousandthousand-fold the mightiest of his generation'; and Hazlitt wrote that 'hardly a speculation has been left on record from the earliest time, but it is loosely folded up in Mr. Coleridge's memory, like a rich, but somewhat tattered piece of tapestry'. He was a fount of inspiration to his friends and communicated far more than his literary productions represent; for his published works, seminal and stimulating as they are, but fragmentarily reveal his unrivalled capacities. Ever a prey to the multitudinous ideas which crowded in upon him, he could conceive where he could not execute, and it is to his letters, which opened the flood-gates of his mind, that we must turn to form an estimate of the comprehensiveness of his intellectual activity and the magnificence as well as the weakness of his character.
Read in consecutive order, the letters tell the story of his life. Every mood, every thought, everything he ever did, perhaps, is mirrored in the letters, and they bring us as close to a realization of what he actually was as we shall ever come. Here is revealed, in the words of Henry James, Coleridge's 'rare, anomalous, magnificent, interesting, curious, tremendously suggestive character, vices and all, with all its imperfections on its head'. Coleridge, indeed, draws his own self-portrait. The incomparable autobiographical letters, for example, not only supply the best information concerning his earliest years but also present an unforgettable character sketch.
An insatiable intellectual curiosity, a restless and inquiring mind, led Coleridge to range over almost the whole of man's knowledge, and his letters reflect his preoccupation with a wide variety of subjects -- poetry, philosophy, science, politics, criticism, theology. His 'Idea-pot' bubbled over with literary plans, and scattered through the letters are the titles and grandiose schemes for books, essays, poems, and dramas, conceived and promised, but never executed. He recognized the weakness of 'wavering' about many works. 'That is the disease of my mind,' he wrote to Poole; 'it is comprehensive in it's conceptions & wastes itself in the contemplations of the many things which it might do.' So vast